September 6, 2010
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?