I’m no expert on George Soros, and I have no knowledge of the situation in Canada which prompted Ezra Levant to write about him.  I know nothing of the financial doings he talks about.  None of those are my concern.  What I do know—and what is my concern—is that Ezra Levant is accusing a fellow Jew of “moral hollowness” for the crime of having survived the Holocaust.  And a quick Google search shows that this perspective—that Soros is not a Jewish survivor, but a Nazi collaborator—is not uncommon.

The facts appear to be this: when the Nazis took control of Hungary in 1944, Soros (then 13) initially served as a message-boy for the Judenrat, delivering letters that contained the lists of those to be deported (not, as Roger Kimball implies with some creative editing, actively rounding them up).  His father eventually bribed a government official to pretend that Soros was his (Christian) godson.  The official’s job involved confiscating Jewish property.  Soros accompanied him and assisted in the confiscation, pretending to be a Christian.  What gets him in trouble, or provides cover for those who want to call him a Nazi collaborator, is his admission that he feels neither survivor’s guilt nor guilt at having participated in the confiscation of property.

For Levant, this is evidence that he is a “sociopath”; for Roger Kimball, that he is “evil”; for Marty Peretz, “a young cog in the Hitlerite wheel.”  Perhaps, for the sake of conversation, he is evil; perhaps he is a morally hollow sociopath; but that the task of surviving the Holocaust forced a Jewish child into position as a very small “cog in the Hitlerite wheel” proves neither—and can prove neither.

Though the Nazi regime never intended for Soros to have the role he did—an accomplice in the theft of property while they were stealing lives—the incorporation of the Jewish people into the crimes committed against the Jews was one of the truly defining qualities of their evil; if there can be a genius of evil, this was a particularly harrowing and undoubtedly brilliant example of it.  Emil Fackenheim speculated that the ideal methods of Jewish destruction were, in descending order, Jewish killing themselves, Jews killing other Jews, and others killing Jews.  If Fackenheim is correct (and he admits he may not be), then an incorporation of Jews into the system of destruction was just as important as the destruction itself.

Primo Levi’s essay, “The Gray Zone” is in part an exploration of what it meant to be a Jewish “collaborator.”  He writes:

“Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived.  This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically, the victims—the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. … In fact, the existence of the squads had a meaning, a message: ‘We, the master race, are your destroyers, but you are no better than we are; if we so wish, and we do so wish, we can destroy not only your bodies but also your souls, just as we have destroyed ours.’”

He’s talking, here, about the Special Squads who helped lead other Jews into the gas chambers, who were responsible for taking the bodies to the crematoria, and who were invariably killed every two to three months.  They were the only Jews, according to one of their few survivors, whom the Nazis in Auschwitz treated as a kind of being: they played soccer with them, felt them to be equally inhuman.  They did things that cannot be compared with Soros’ role; and Soros’ quest for survival in Hungary cannot be deemed equivalent to the hellish novum of Auschwitz.  Yet the deportations and property confiscations in Hungary were a part of the same machine of death, the same Holocaust; ultimately, disparate parts of the same event.  And the questions Levi says arise from the existence of the Special Squads are the same that Levant, Kimball, Peretz, and others are asking of Soros:

“Why did they accept that task?  Why didn’t they rebel?  Why didn’t they prefer death?”

Levi’s insistence—and the question that later philosophers and theologians, like Fackenheim, were forced to take up—is that the Holocaust collapsed, within its bounds and for its duration, conventional morality: it was a world where one had to lie, cheat, steal, and condemn others to death by action or omission in order to survive.  Yet survival was among the highest possible acts of resistance to a world governed by evil.  Levi stole; he cheated; he lied; he was selectively selfish and selectively generous, condemning others to death because of it—yet saving some, and himself.  Was Levi a collaborator?  An evil man?  A sociopath?  His guilt, after all, is always tempered by the knowledge that he survived.

So he demands of those who would judge the Special Squads and all others who survived without the bounds of conventional or even post-Holocaust morality: imagine you are them, you have seen what they have seen and know what they know, have been broken down as they have been broken down, and ask yourself how long you would last—not before your body died, but before your ability to resist cooperating for the sake of your own survival died, and ultimately to consider those who did “with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.”

People want Soros to feel guilty for having survived in the way he did.  Yet his answer about not feeling guilt is understandable—he gives examples from the markets, but another comes to mind, that of Jean Amery sitting in a Vienna coffeehouse in 1935 and reading of the Nuremburg Laws: “To be a Jew, that meant for me, from this moment on, to be a dead man on leave, someone to be murdered, who only by chance was not yet where he properly belonged.”  So it was, too, with Jewish property: the confiscation was inevitable.  It is not sociopathic that Soros does not feel he was a thief; the crime for which he is condemned sixty-six years later.  The property was stolen the moment the Nazis arrived in Hungary; it only by chance was not yet confiscated.  Would I feel guilt?  I think I would—but I can’t—and nor can anyone—say with certainty unless they lived through the event.

The fact, in the end, is that when George Soros is condemned as “evil”; a “sociopath”; a “collaborator”; a “Jewish Nazi” all that is demonstrated is the scope and efficacy of the Holocaust: it was an event designed so that, if it failed to destroy Jewry, the survivors would be condemned as no better than their attempted murderers.  But the fact remains that his mere survival–because he was a Jew–was an act of resistance.  They aren’t decrying collaboration; they’re decrying his survival.  Levant, Kimball, Peretz, et al. either possess shockingly incomplete understandings of what the Holocaust was—or else they’re just milking the outrage they can invoke in order to score a handful of cheap (and petty) points against a political opponent.  Especially Levant — I don’t know how, in good faith, one can claim there has ever been a “Jewish Nazi’ who did not, out of sheer ideological necessity, kill himself.

The severity of the Holocaust as an event — in history, in philosophy, in theology, in humanity — is not only a result of where and when it was born, or the methods and efficiency of its slaughter.  It is that, as Levi implies and Fackenheim further argues, it created a moral world unto itself — which, though not our moral world, must affect our relationship to the morality and philosophy that came before it.  When Soros is called a “Jewish Nazi” for the crime of having survived but survived blemished and not feeling guilt for that survival, and when this is cheered — loudly and repeatedly, as this claim has been making the rounds in various forms for at least six years, it seems — it implies that the Holocaust has changed remarkably little about the way humanity must understand itself.

The question to ask, then, is this: if survival requires that one take part, in some small way, participate in an evil system that seeks to destroy you, does survival become tainted by that evil?  Does survival itself require expiation?


1) Did you know there was a small and brief theater of battle in New Mexico?  Neither did I.  It’s eerie, and reads almost like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s imagination—the Confederate retreat, through miles of dry desert, might well have been pulled from Blood Meridian.

2) Yes, Jackson was brilliant in the Valley Campaign, but between then and Antietam he comes across as so incompetent that one really wonders why Lee stuck by him so strongly.  If all of Foote’s anecdotes are to be believed, Stonewall had a remarkable penchant—and ability—to nap in the middle of battle.

3) The telling of Antietam is something marvelous, as terrible as the day was.  For one thing, I hadn’t realized quite how elegant Lee’s intercepted plans were—but once Foote gets into the battle itself, it’s something else.  It left me, despite knowing how it would end, breathless and exhilarated.  If you read nothing else of Foote’s, read this section.  (I may amend this by the time I’m done with the whole Narrative—but that probably won’t be for a few more months.)

4) The naval campaigns are just as interesting as the land ones.  This surprised me—but it’s on the rivers and sea that there’s a real arms race, and the inventiveness of engineers and captains on both sides is fascinating.

5) I can only hope that by the time Volume Two was published, either Foote or his editor had gotten sick of the phrase “baptism of fire.” Yes, we get it, there’s religious symbolism there.  But it’s also a cliché—or was by the time Foote was done with it.  The only reason I haven’t taken to striking it out every time I see it is because this book has somehow become my Shabbat afternoon reading.

6) Before reading, just go ahead and look up “defilade” and “enfilade” in your dictionary.

7) If Leonidas Polk weren’t so damned incompetent, the entire Western Theater might have gone significantly better for the South.  Then again, that alone wouldn’t have made up for the fact that Grant and Sherman were in the West.

8) This isn’t Shelby Foote, but it is the Civil War: these two posts on Robert E. Lee and slavery, by Ta-Nehisi Coates and his guest blogger Andy Hall, respectively, are well worth reading if you’re into this kind of thing.

At Jewcy, Ben Cohen writes:

“Our view of history — more precisely, the way in which we remember the recent past in the public domain – generally tends to be cluttered by the political imperatives of the present.”

What he’s more specifically talking about is genocide, which has developed different definitions, depending on the situation you’re referring to. In the abstract, legal sense, it

“means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

That’s very roughly what’s meant when it’s used in relation with the Holocaust – and that would make sense, as this definition was formulated as a result of the atrocities of World War Two. Contemporary political conversation, however, has seen “genocide”

“recast as a ‘civil war in which all sides are committing atrocities’ and, equally, ‘a nasty regional conflict in which culpability can be distributed among several parties’.”

Again, roughly speaking: he’s talking about Darfur, which is commonly called a genocide despite it’s failure to meet the legal definition; and he’s talking about those who refer to Israel as genocidal.

What’s particularly interesting here is the interplay between past and present: altering the definition of a word alters a past action, if that action was inextricably linked to that word (as is the case, I feel safe in claiming, with the Holocaust and genocide). But using that word in a contextually inappropriate present situation applies the older/original definition to the present: the perceived reality of the present is also altered.

That may seem contradictory: present redefining past and past redefining present, the word itself taking on two different yet simultaneous meanings. But imagine it as more akin to the word, used in two different context, flattening the differences between those contexts. It isn’t that one becomes the other, but that both are shifted toward a mean, and neither remain what they objectively are/were.

Or, to bring in the requisite line of Orwell:

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

See Also: “Notes on Meaning and Language”

[Note: I’ve found myself doing a good deal of quick little informal online responses to readings for class this quarter (the response paper is dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave) so hopefully no one will mind when, from time to time, I hyperlink them up and toss them onto the site for all to see: especially when I’m otherwise swamped and have neither time nor mental stability for writing a new post.  This was supposed to be a discussion of Seamus Heaney’s poem in light of Yeats; rather, it turned almost more into a discussion of the 20th century in light of Yeats.  And “epikalupsis” is more or less the opposite of apokalupsis, from which we get “apocalypse.”]

In Yeats’ poems during and after World War I, the Irish War for Independence, and the Irish Civil War (and, toward the end, seeing World War II on the horizon), he presents the image of world in which some destructive energy has been unleashed: the loose falcon and beast slouching towards Bethlehem in “The Second Coming”; the disturbing stone-hearted “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916”; literal sounds and visions of war in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”; some sort of daimonic-demonic force freed again, neither true to the Greek conception nor the later Christian evolution of it, but rather some curious halfblooded monster-child of the two whom Yeats saw “lurch[ing] past, his great eyes without thought / Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks, / That insolent fiend Robert Artisson” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”).

Yeats sees an age of non-apocalypse, in which the only thing uncovered is uncertainty brought on by terror; the only veil torn back was what our knowledge consisted of. In Ireland, the daimon of this age manifested itself not merely in war, but in civil war-it seemed as if Yeats’ worries about too long a sacrifice were prescient. And so reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry, particularly “Two Lorries” in light of Yeats becomes, in its way, a cyclical act, the reader thinking, I’ve seen this show before.

Then one looks at the date of Heaney’s poem: 1996, describing the 1993 bombing of the Magherafelt bus station, realizes that in 1998, two years after Heaney’s work was published, deaths related to fighting in Northern Ireland-an ongoing blend of Irish Independence/Irish Civil War-would triple; watching the film Michael Collins on St. Patrick’s Day at age nine, not knowing why crying, while one’s father worries Ireland is about to destroy itself; how even now it sometimes seems unnatural that Ireland should be at relative peace: and it seems that Yeats’ “image out of Spiritus Mundi” was accurately chosen: the sphinx does not terrorize by all-consuming apocalyptic conflagration, but by presence-it positions itself outside the city walls, rather than storming them, is content to terrorize from afar by the occasional killing.

So it is in the only mode available that Heaney describes Magherafelt: past and present, dream and reality blurring into one another. A difficulty remembering whether his mother-already dead-was or was not one of the victims. And such fear implicit in the question: “but which lorry / Was it now?” There is a reason he becomes as a child again in its wake, hoping for his mother: not a reversion to innocence, but incomprehension, no answer in sight to a sphinx’s riddles and understanding less with each passing event.

Obama’s left-handed!

For the Record

January 20, 2009

I watched Obama take the Oath of Office on ESPN.  An accidental homage to his (wise) refusal to watch anything but Sportscenter on the campaign bus.

Setting aside all the particularities of this inauguration (which others will no doubt speak about), isn’t it striking and remarkable — beautiful even, in its way — to watch peaceful transition of Executive power and authority?  And that we have done it successfully for so long?


This just struck me as possibly the greatest merit of formal poetry: it sounds so much better when read aloud when its in meter than if it’s free verse.  (Yes, over-generalization, but seems to usually be the case.)

Andrew posts video of MLK’s final public words, in which he seems equally confident in the eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement and that he will not live to see it happen; that (in hindsight, at least) he will die soon.  That speech has always brought to mind what is possibly the most striking passage in Elie Wiesel’s memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, where he reflects on the deaths of Rabbis Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Watching that footage made me go look it up:

“As I said, I wasn’t surprised.  Lieberman had acted strangely when I saw him last.  At the end of our lesson he had stood up and embraced me.  He was to leave that afternoon for Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover with his older brother.  I was in a hurry.  I was giving a lecture at Yale that afternoon.  He walked me to the door, but suddenly exclaimed, ‘Would you like to come back, Reb Eliezer?’  We went back and reimmersed ourselves in study. […]

“An hour went by.  Once again he accompanied me to the hallway, we embraced, and I got into the elevator, but my friend and master took me by the arm and said, “We still have time, Reb Eliezer, don’t we still have time?”  We went back to his desk, took our places, and opened the Talmud for another hour. […] I left with a heavy heart, for during the lesson I had noticed that his desk, always strewn with books, magazines, and papers, was entirely clear.  This unprecedented  fact brought another image to my mind.

“One morning, years before, Heschel had phoned me.  He needed me urgently.  I jumped in a cab and rushed to the Seminary.  Heschel opened his door  and, without saying a word, leaned his head on my shoulder and began to sob like a child.  Rarely have I seen an adult cry like that.  Still standing in the doorway, I noticed that his ordinarily messy table was neatly arranged.  We parted without exchanging a word.  Heschel died the next day.  Now Lieberman’s table was clear too.

“The Talmud tells us that the Righteous are warned of their impending death, to allow them time to put their affairs in order.  Heschel and Lieberman, each in his own way, were surely among the Righteous.”

It’s a story I’ve never known what to make of, but it is one of two or three passages that make me keep that book with me.  And, thinking on it this afternoon, it seems appropriate that King’s death should make me think of Heschel’s, and Heschel’s of King’s, different though they were.

Noah Millman brings up an important point about history:

“History is – unavoidably – narrative, whether we’re talking about national narrative or the narrative of an individual memoir.”

 That history — the telling and examining of the past — is narrative, and narrative is unavoidably constructed, does not mean that we’re living in some sort of afactual postmodernism gone awry; “the past” as a series of events and facts does exist, and exists independently of these narratives in a true form.  The problem is our ability to approach that form.

I’m not saying that truth is so unavoidably elusive that it is (or nearly is) irrelevant; any historical narrative or historical understanding needs to have as a goal to come as close as possible to the truth of past events.  There is, however, a problem of ability: the practice of history, in some ways, is quite similar to me driving while wearing blinders — and no glasses.  (But preferably not in weather like there was today; then history would be suicidal, not merely blurred and difficult.)  It’s often our (innocent?) ignorance of facts which prevents our history from being fully accurate.  It’s certainly the case in the period most of my historical worries are spent over; the sheer temporal distance almost guarantees it.  For example, this article (h/t Will) means we need to alter our history of “Romans in Germany”:

“Archaeologists have found more than 600 relics from a huge battle between a Roman army and Barbarians in the third century, long after historians believed Rome had given up control of northern Germany.”

If by “history” we meant “the past” and all histories were such, this couldn’t happen.  For this fact to demand the revision of a history, that history must be, at least in some important respect, a narrative of our making.  It isn’t the fault of any political/philosophical agenda that the present history was wrong, there were simply missing facts.  Even in the most responsibly written history — without, you know, all sortsa crazy theories interfering with those facts of which we’re already aware — this is inevitable (at least in Classics).  That doesn’t mean we need to disregard all history as constructed, or attack it as such when we don’t agree with it, but to engage it critically with the aim of improving it with respect to the facts of the past.

This post of Conor’s (“Is Western culture really in ruin? […] To say that we are in the ruin of Western culture implies an age in which things were better. Does that age exist?”) is well worth reading – as are the comments. I’m certainly not exempted from this habit of playing chicken-little; it’s been more or less constant to bemoan the decline of Western culture since its inception (date it when you will).

But I’m not sure that it always matters whether that foreboding of doom is accurate. My copy of Love in the Ruins isn’t on-hand for reference, but I remember beginning to wonder as I read it whether that corner of Louisiana existed in “dread latter days” of existence anywhere outside of Tom More’s mind. The scenario of psyche-altering doom he sees everywhere is so bizarre that it seems reasonable for no one to believe him, especially given his penchant for Early Times and technical status as an escaped ward of a mental institution. And from More’s perspective, the dangers he sees would prevent those affected from knowing what had happened. It’s never fully clarified, and his severe allergic reaction to multiple gin fizzes during the “present” of the novel doesn’t help matters.

Still, it doesn’t seem to matter whether More was seeing reality or imagining doom. What he learns from the experience of that half-week enables him to live more easily in the world – he’s not without discomfort in it, but he’s more alive than when things began. Maybe taking the idea of Percy’s “aestheticized religious mode” of bourbon-drinking works as an example: by the novel’s end, More isn’t drinking out of habit, physiological necessity, or to blot out the unpleasantries of modernity, but for the specific purpose of enhancing the religious experience of a Sunday afternoon.

* * *

John gives an important addendum to the whole discussion of “Is the West in decline?” when he writes:

“[N]or is it helpful to refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the genuine gains that humankind has made have involved some significant losses, too.”

If we start reframing a lot of our discussion of “decline” (which can’t be going on all the time, obviously) in terms of “loss” just what it is that we’re missing – and how to repair this, if we can – becomes a little more clear.

As a prelude to further thoughts on Noah Millman’s now-several-day-old post on history and narrative (and Holocaust memoirs) that went fantastically hand-in-hand for a reading assignment I had that very day:

“The great injunction is: never forget. But never to forget necessarily means never to construct narrative, which in turn means never to derive moral meaning from experience, but to leave the experience raw, and undigested. That is, perhaps, the truest and most respectful approach, but it is not – and cannot be – the approach of the Holocaust educator.”

And what’s quite fascinating is the way in which the narratives constructed by the Holocaust educators themselves can vary.  Take, for example, the Holocaust museums in Washington and Israel: In D.C., most of the space devoted to ghetto revolts and the resistance is given over to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (I may be wrong when I say “most”; it’s been several years since I was there; it is, at the very least, noticeably disproportionate).  In Israel, Warsaw is given (by comparison) minimal space; it is one of a series, in that narrative — the Warsaw Jews were not unique.  And the space, as a figure of the whole, given to resistance and uprisings is larger in Israel than in D.C.

It’s certainly not any kind of sinister ploy; narratives are going to vary from place to place, especially when you consider the limited size of a museum — each curatorial decision affects the precise nature of the story told in some way.  But I can’t help but think, considering Israel’s early conflicted past with the Holocaust and survivors (the idea, in some places, of those who fought or left — or who were already in then-Palestine working for a state — as compared to those who let themselves be led to the slaughter; there are stories of it being a source of shame in the early decades), that it was a deliberate attempt to point out that there was resistance, that European Jewry had not been in some way weaker than what came in Israel.

Of course, they can’t both be objectively true: Either Warsaw was as singular as the Washington museum makes it out to be, or it was as unexceptional among others as the Israeli museum presents it.  (And things like this are why I get myself into trouble whenever I open my mouth about Holocaust education and its many complications.)