Elie Weisel


25 January, 1999. Millennial end Conversations with the Intellectual Heritage Faculty; Revised 26 January, 1999.

I have found the response of my students perplexing. Most claim they are unaware of the major events of the second world war. They have never heard of Auschwitz, which has come to symbolize the historical phenomenon known as the Holocaust. Shockingly, my students do not have a historical consciousness and the graphic context of that era often leaves them speechless. Night comes as a revelation. Each student has a different reaction. The responses tend to be on the emotional side, rather than rationally analytic. They can identify with Elie Wiesel; they cannot even begin to grasp the dimensions of the Holocaust that seems to them to be purely statistical and incomprehensible in character. So, Wiesel's tragedy is a personal one, not representative of that of Eastern European Jewish culture. I simply wish to make a few points that can be raised in class.

1. Adorno asked the question, which I ask in class, can there be poetry after Auschwitz? Does the Shoah mark the end of the Enlightenment and its collective project to emancipate human kind where reason rules, or is the rationalization of reason the hallmark of the administration of things that typifies totalitarianism or mass society at the end of our millennium where the individual has become depersonalized, colonized, and alienated against larger forces that escape our understanding and control?

2. Why did the Jews not resist? They seem to have collaborated with their tormentors, as exemplified in Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Of course, this line of thinking results ultimately in blaming the victim. Too, with the bureaucratization and industrialization of genocide, the Jews, in their isolation, could not have possibly anticipated their fate as a collectivity because there was not a historical precedent for the Jewish elders to deal with their Nazi persecutors. Understanding of the genocide came after the fact. Nothing could have been done to have changed the Jews' fate.

3. Can we apply Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil to men like Eichmann which seems to dissipate his personal responsibility? After all, his defense at his trial in Jerusalem was that he was simply following orders. Did he have options in the National Socialist Behemoth?

4. Why has Wiesel come to be a spokesperson for the Holocaust with his writings? Too, his book serves to defy the Holocaust deniers. If you deny your memories, there will only be a return of these repressed materials in the future. There were six million deaths. Each person died uniquely. Is it not hubris to try to give witness to a cataclysmic event when really he is only giving his tale of the martyrdom of members of his family that he personally experienced?

5. Are there lessons to be learned from Wiesel's experiences? Are we obligated to take concrete actions in the Sudan, Rwanda and Kosovo today, knowing what the consequences will be if we remain indifferent? That indifference really is complicity, in the final analysis. Yet, we see that the United States exhibits no sense of purpose in composing a foreign policy that enforces the rule of law internationally that clearly details what has to be done in the name of collective security. Genocide is clearly defined by United Nations protocols of which we are a signatory; yet, we often do not respond. Why?

We must examine the relationships that produce anti-Semitism in prejudice and the authoritarian personality. There is background material that must be grasped.

1. Religious anti-Semitism biased Christian Europe against Jews as God killers who rejected their messiah.

2. There was a cultural factor in so far as Jews thought of themselves as an elect and chosen people. This ethnocentrism competed with their majority hosts.

3. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion effected a political dimension to anti-Semitism in which the state, in certain cases, acted as an instrument to persecute the Jews. The falsehood fostered was that the Jews were engaged in a Zionist conspiracy to take over the world.

4. The obvious economic factor is that anti-Semitism allowed for the expropriation of Jewish property. Of course, this was theft pure and simple.

5. Eugenics played a role in the Holocaust in that Hitler believed that ethnic cleansing led to good racial hygiene. German blood had to be protected against contamination. This nonsense is Social Darwinism taken to a reductio ad absurdum. Genocide as decided at the Wannsee Conference was the logical outcome.


Has the Age of Reason come to an end when in the name of efficiency and the rationalization of administration of the civil service the state's total monopoly of the means of violence is put toward ends which are judged to be value free (beyond good and evil), namely the extermination of whole populations that are deemed unworthy of life itself? Can the use of reason itself become despotic? If so, then the Enlightenment extinguished itself in 1945, not be to be rekindled ever again.

Ronald Jeremiah Schindler, Ph.D.