A Cat and Mouse Chase (Me and the Holocaust)

Yes, the Nazi genocide has been chasing me. I have no idea why. First, it was the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Then it was Imre Kertsze’s Liquidation. And now, I just finished reading Gunter Grass’s Cat and Mouse. And as if that was not enough, I ended up watching The Pianist today.

It is not that I want to stay away from the holocaust history – the fact is that I am as far from it as can be. I live in a country where there are not many Jews, none of my acquaintance have anyone who has anyone having faced that trauma. It is also not that i was never aware of (in general terms) what Hitler had done to the Jews. However, for some reason I kept myself away (consciously) from any literature or movie that describes the Jewish execution. It leaves me shaken to the core.

But the cat catches the mouse, sooner or later; only this time I was the mouse. First the books, then the dilemma

The Book Thief is mostly a humane story written with amazing simplicity and originality (imagine Death as the narrator). There is only one Jew character sheltered and loved by a stranger German family. I consider that family as the definition of ‘humanity’. However, you need to read it to understand why I say that. Book Thief is the only book by Zusak that I have read, and if it is representative of his brand of literature, I am simply in awe.

Cat and Mouse turned out to be my introduction to Gunter Grass. I had his Crabwalk lying with me for a long time, but I ended up buying and reading this one straight away. These are the kind of coincidences that make me feel that I have been the mouse in this strange game. I found Grass’s style endearing and personal. For some reason, in all the time that I had been anticipating his literature, I had assumed he will be dry, serious, and effective. Effective and powerful he is, but without the baggage. Through a strange teen-friendship, Grass has plotted the regular life of the youth in Hitler’s Germany during the war – without any bias, without any excess. I am definitely picking up the Tin Drum soon.

Imre Kertsze is different. I think he is in the category of Kafka and Beckett, only with lesser use of metaphors. I hear Liquidation is not one of his best books, but that was the one I stumbled upon, read and loved. He has attempted to characterize ‘holocaust survivor mentality’ as a whole and has tried to negate it. Being a survivor himself, I guess he was aware that it was necessary for the Jews to move on. However, I find myself incompetent to judge whether it is desirable, if at all possible.

And then came the Pianist. All the literature I had read, had never described the Hitler brand of torture. I also know that the three books I have mentioned do not intend in any way to achieve that. However, the Pianist does. I just cannot watch it! I have stopped my DVD thrice by now, and I do not know whether I will end up watching it completely. My head is occupied with a single question – WHY?

Why does holocaust trouble me? I do not live in Europe, not in the US, not even in a country where a single individual might have been directly affected. No Jews live around me. Then, why? Why so much so that I conciously avoid literature and movies related to it? I do not have answers. Probalities, yes. But no answers.

There are another set of Whys, deeper and more troublesome kind. Why did Hitler do it? I can understand a politician in a democracy trying genocide for votes, but why a dictator? It is not even that he gained power through the holocaust, he started it all at his peak – WHY? And why did he not order a shoot-at-sight? Why the methodical execution? Why the gas chambers when one absurd bullet could have done the job? Why? Why?

I have decided that I am done with running from this Cat of the holocaust. I want to read good literature, fiction or non-fiction which gives me a some idea of the those times; and I need suggestions from you. In this Cat and Mouse game, the mouse surrenders. Why? I have too many others to answer.

13 responses to “A Cat and Mouse Chase (Me and the Holocaust)

  1. Interesting.

    My husband’s mother is Latin American Catholic (El Salvador – which has it’s own set of problems) and his father is a German Jew (Hamburg).

    My husband’s father escaped Germany when he was 11 years old. He left not knowing if he’d ever see his mother and father again. His grandfather had been in prison for political reasons in Switzerland and had read Mein Kampf while in prison and had learned of Hitler’s idea of killing Jews and thankfully took it seriously (which a lot of people didn’t!!) He had moved to the U.S. after his release and offered to sponsor the father in-law and his brother. But the parents didn’t do so until their business was destroyed. They sincerely did not believe the German community would allow the Nazi’s to come to power. They shipped my father in-law out first and then his brother 6 months later. Thankfully, both parents were able to make it to the states, too.

    But most of their relatives were killed. We used to visit my husband’s Aunt in San Diego who didn’t escape until after WWII and was determined that the nurses were using her for Nazi experimentation. Makes you wonder what she had to endure as a child.

    Nobody talks about any of this stuff. My husband’s father barely expresses emotions at all.

    Hitler was able to do what he did, in large part, because the Lutheran church was the largest denomination in Germany at that time and Martin Luther had written a document on how the Jews should be burned.

    Nothing exists in isolation. It’s all prescribed by how we’ve previously defined ourselves and what it is we allow ourselves to believe.

    We’re not done with this. It’s alive and well in Africa. Can you look at what’s going on there? It’s every bit as bad and maybe even worse. This is what happens when we wonder if life is worth living.

  2. Suggestions:

    Books: Anything by Elie Wiesel

    DVDs: Hiding and Seeking; Heritage: Civilization of the Jews; BBC: Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State; Night and Fog (Criterion Collection); Bohhoeffer; Shoah.

    I think the BBC documentary on Auschwitz is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Shoah is incredible, too. (I made a major study of this in 2006 so there is much more on my blog : here. (And also scattered throughout.)

  3. Thanks a lot, Arulba, for your insight and suggestions. Am in the process of obtaining the title and the documentarie. There is a lot on your blog to read about it first. That’s first job, I guess 🙂

  4. Where to start?

    Night by Elie Wiesel

    Or try anything by Primo Levi

    The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (similiar to the Book Thief in that it is a children’s book that has crossed over into the adult genre)

    The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (another kids book — but very good)

    The Diary of Anne Frank

    The German Trauma — Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001 by Gitta Sereny

    In fact anything by Sereny is worth a read, she is by far the best investigative journalist operating in the world today. She’s obsessed about morality and what it is that makes humans do bad things to each other.

    She wrote Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder, which is about Franz Stangl, the commander at the Treblinka extermination camp where 90,000 Jews died.

    She also wrote the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, which is a biography about Hitler’s architect and right-hand man. It’s a hefty book and not easy reading, but I ploughed through it about 12 years ago and it still haunts me.

    Hope these suggestions help.

  5. Kimbofo,

    Thanks a lot for your suggestions. Luckily, I have already ordered Night and should be reading it soon. Will look for the other ones. I hope I can understand the holocaust (not factually but psychologically) someday. But then, I wonder if any psychology can explain it!

  6. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a slim YA novel, but very interesting.

  7. As for your hope to try and understand the holocaust psychologically, I am facing this question right now in my Political Theory class. It is strange question though – I have previously avoided such an understanding all together for the second we can make sense of such a terrible event, I feel that we have rationalized and justified it to some extent.

    I think the more important question is: how does power act?

    I am currently taking a class on “Biopolitics” in Grad School. I am not sure if you familiar with the term, but it was coined by the French Theorist Michel Foucault and refers to the “politics of regulating life”. The basic idea is that we have moved away from the age of sovereignty, in which the kings power was defined by his ability to decide who lives and who dies, to an age of governmentality, in which the state tries to organize and protect life for the ‘sake of security’; death becomes a completely taboo subject which governments tend to shy away from.

    Foucault does not spend much time describing totalitarian regimes. He touches on this theme a little in his Lectures at the College De France “Society Must Be Defended”(it is a book), and asks that if we are in an age in which the States power is one of Biopolitics, How is it possible that there is so much death? His answer: in order to protect life we must kill those who threaten our definition of a ‘good life’ – thus state racism is born.

    Georgio Agamben, in his book Homo Sacer, draws upon Foucault’s Biopolitics and constructs his theory of ‘the state of exception’ which helps to answer this previous question. The ‘Homo Sacer’ refers to a man of ancient Greece who is in an interesting predicament – he is not considered a citizen and therefore may be killed without consequence – however at the same time he may not be sacrificed in any rituals for he is of no value. He is stripped down to bare life – a man of no rights. Thus the Homo Sacer, is an exception to the rule. The Paradox is that only through law can he be excluded and therefore he is still included in the law; he is in an inclusive exclusion.

    In short, Agamben shows the state has become a place in which in order to protect the purity of life (this is exactly what Hitler did – try and regulate the purity of the master race), it creates an exception in which it can strip humanity down to bare life, to a Homo Sacer. These men are not sacrificed, for they are of no value, they are merely exterminated like lice.

    What arises from this discussion is that there are closer links between democracy and totalitarianism than we first thought. Fascism was not the exception to the rule, rather the paradigm case of the age that we live in. The problem is the Nation-State (i.e. the STRUCTURE -and if it continues to exist, death will continue in the name of life.

    Agamben shows that the state of exception is being used today in order to draw stronger parallels between democracy and totalitarianism. In places like Guantanamo, prisoners are stripped down to bare life without any rights. The danger is that the exception becomes the rule – especially in a war on terror that may see no end.

    Be mindful if you decide to read Agamben, he is bleak and his sources are even bleaker. His theoretical arguments are hard to understand, however, his section on the Holocaust is a little more comprehensible.

    I would read Foucault lectures, specifically “Society must be Defneded” and Agamben’s “Homo Sacer”. Even if you disagree (as I do on many points) you will not be disappointed. It may enlighten you on how mass murder is possible – an understanding which is more scary than you may think.


  8. Aaron,

    Thanks for your insight. Would surely like to read your suggested lectures. If you know an internet source for them, it would be great.

    I do not think any logic can ever explain the ‘why’ that clouds the brain on contemplating the Nazi genocide. More than anything, what shocks me is the methodical approach. As a nation, there went on planning and infrastructure development in order to carry out the plan that Hitler had. I recently finished ‘Night’ and watched the documentary ‘Auschwitz’. I have almost given up on understanding. However, I am pessimistic to the state that I don’t think a repeat in various forms is preventable even today. One of the negatives of the Nazi holocaust is that the magnitude of it will generally leave others behind, and mankind having seen the Hitler version may well dismiss the others as ‘not to worry’. I think its already happening.

  9. Thanks for your comment on my blog, I thought I would take a look and yours, and I came across this interesting post. I believe that the Holocaust troubles absolutely everyone (if you have any idea of what it entailed). It is impossible to understand. One minute you think you might, then your brain just starts going round and round again.

    One way to try and understand it is that the Nazis were ordinary people – they implemented policies gradually that built up to full-scale extermination. You say about the shooting – well they did shoot. They had mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) who marched Jews in their hundreds to communal graves and shot them, one on top of the other. This didn’t seem to be doing the job for the Nazis, though – either psychological trauma for the perpetrators or just not killing enough – and they continued to develop their extermination techniques.

    Understanding the Holocaust psychologically, I believe, comes down to remembering that the perpetrators are ordinary men. The one book I have read that shocked me and I will always remember is ‘Ordinary Men’ by Christopher Browning. It is so hard to take in, you won’t stop thinking about it for a while, but it is a must-read if you want to get closer to the Holocaust and how it could have happened. (I also read ‘My Father’s Keeper’ about guilt of Nazi children which really helps give a different perspective of the Nazis, too.)

    But out of the Holocaust, as you mention, come stories of those who you consider to be the definition of ‘humanity’. The truth is, we all say we are against it etc. but if it was happening in our country to some other group, would we stand up and help that group of people? Would we live a secret life in order to help people in need? Would we be willing to lie to our families, our neighbours, in order to protect these people? It is very hard to honestly say we would. But there were people, hundreds of people, who did. These people are recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations (see http://www1.yadvashem.org/righteous_new/index.html). These people give us something to look up to (the book I read on the subject was ‘The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe’ by Samuel Oliner).

    So the Holocaust leaves us with two extreme forms of what man is capable of. Both, in their own ways, hard to ever understand. I could go on and on about this, since I just studied it in depth for University. I will probably write a post on it soon, actually, as it has got me thinking! But keep going, you will probably need a break at some point (I really can’t look at any of my Holocaust books for a while), but there is so much to learn. It is definitely worth it.

    PS. I agree that Primo Levi, Eli Weisel etc are great books to read. Though it won’t be easy!

  10. Thanks for your comment.

    I agree that the Holocaust brings out the best amongst us on both sides. I have read Eli Weisel’s “Night” and was shocked, to say the least. I am far from Europe and from its history. But when you read authors from round the world, pain suffered by people far ‘un-connected’ to you can bring home all that you felt would never bother you. That is what has been happening to me.

    From whatever little you mention about “My Father’s Keeper”, I think I must read that one.

    However, with the backdrop of Holocaust and all the divisive hatred around us, I find hope of all kinds dwindling by the day. I think the worst aftermath of the Nazi execution is that it has murdered the hope in all men that certain things were just impossible. I think Imre Kertesz in his “Liquidation” brings out this point very subtly when he talks about “What Aushwitz represents” and why the memories of it should not be kept. I don’t know, I think there is a lot I don’t understand when it comes to this.

  11. Pingback: The Book Thief « Ardent Reader

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