Re-examining the Holocaust: The Triumph of Humanity over Inhumanity
By Elias Pogany
‘And yet we have not forgotten that we are human beings, not degenerate, primitive creatures … we want to go on living and remain free, creative human beings. This will be the test of our lives. If our life will not be extinguished even beneath the thick layer of ashes that now covers it, this will signify the triumph of humanity over inhumanity’
– Anonymous Author from Warsaw Ghetto, in short essay entitled Vi a Balhaltener Vasser Kval Fun Unter Der Erd (As a Hidden Spring Beneath the Ground), Quoted in Radavasky, 1987.
Throughout my reading of Agamben and subsequent scholars such as Primo Levi, as well as our group discussions in class, I thought of my own family and what they experienced over the course of the Holocaust. My grandmother, Margit (Grandma Muci), grandfather, Miklós (Grandpa Nick), and great aunt, Klara (Klari), were survivors of this genocide. My grandfather Miklos’ mother, my great-grandmother, Gabriella, perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. While my grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the Nazi-imposed ‘state of exception’, and while Agamben might argue that they were reduced to ‘bare life’, I feel confident that were they still alive today, my grandparents might disagree with him. Though I do not claim to speak for my grandparents, and cannot even begin to fathom the experiences that they endured during the Shoah, I would like to tell you why I feel so confident.
A bit on the theorists
Before I do so, it might be helpful to quickly review some of what Agamben had to say on the state of exception, bare life, and the Musselman. In Homo Sacer, Agemben discusses the distinction between bios, which is political life, or life in society, and zoe, which refers to ‘bare life’ or animal life that is stripped of all political and social meaning. In the modern state, zoe is coming to be increasingly included in calculations and manifestations of sovereign power, which is where politics becomes biopolitics. The extreme example of this convergence is the ‘state of exception’. In this space, the status quo – juridical law – is suspended, and a blurring occurs between order and chaos, between bios and zoe, which creates a ‘zone of indistinction’. Thereby, the political and social status of one’s life has been stripped, and the remainder is what Agamben calls ‘bare life’. The individual who has been reduced to this bare life is the target of extreme violence and degradation by the Sovereign, who, by virtue of declaring this ‘state of exception’, is in essence violating the law without actually violating the law.
The Holocaust is often advanced as the paradigmatic example of the state of exception. In the ghettos, concentration camps and death camps, the Nazi state attempted to strip large numbers of human beings of their humanity, and reduce them to bare life. Levi’s concept of the Musselman—the figure who is neither human nor inhuman, neither dead nor alive, neither conscious nor unconscious—resides somewhere in between. He is the iconographic concentration camp inmate. Instead of a name, the Musselman was reduced to a number, which was forcibly tattooed on his or her forearm or wrist.
What do I say to all of this?
What do I say to all of this? I say, yes, Hitler and the Nazis were successful in establishing ‘states of exception’, zones populated by Muselmänner—seemingly lifeless, though technically alive, beings. But stopping here doesn’t do justice to the anonymous author in the Warsaw Ghetto whom I quoted at the beginning, who resisted being reduced to bare life and all of the courageous men, women, and children who defiantly refused to give up their humanity. My grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother come to mind. My grandfather served for a year and a half essentially as a slave labourer in the Hungarian Labor Battalions and was later interned in the notorious Bergen-Belson concentration camp in northern Germany. Despite the best efforts of his incarcerators to break him down, starve him, and eradicate his bios, he didn’t completely allow them to. I remember my father showing me a large piece of paper that his father had given him. While in the camp, my grandfather collected soup recipes from his starving fellow inmates and recalled those recipes that his mother had passed down to him and wrote them down—70 in all. While he may not have been thinking it at the time, I believe that my grandpa was effectively declaring; ‘I am Miklós Pogany, the son of Gabriella Pogany; I am not inmate #xxxx’ and I will eat the most delicious soup someday.’
While born Jewish, Grandpa Nick, his parents and siblings converted to Catholicism, and my grandfather entered Bergen Belsen having been a devout Catholic for over 25 years. While there, he witnessed some fellow prisoners performing a makeshift Passover Seder, when Jews give thanks to God for guiding them out of slavery in Egypt. My grandfather was so moved by this act of defiance, he decided to return to Judaism. In this instance, I think that my grandfather, as well as his fellow prisoners, were resisting the best efforts of the Nazis to strip them of their dignity, humanity, and socio-religious identities. I think the same can be said of my equally devoutly Catholic great-grandmother, Gabriella, who in clutching a crucifix to her breast as she entered the gas chamber refused to surrender that aspect of her bios, her religious identity, which she held so dear.
My Grandma Muci provides another example of the durability and resiliency of the human spirit. When I think of my Grandma Muci, I don’t think of the skeletal, lice-infested, concentration camp inmate weighing 63 pounds, battling tuberculosis in the many months following her liberation. I think of the kind, compassionate mother who raised my father, aunt, and uncle. I think of the woman who had a special place in her heart for her grandchildren, who, when I would spend the night at her house, would excitedly wake up at the crack of dawn and fix me a bowl of Fruit Loops and milk. I think of the woman who would never miss a chance to take my cousins and me to the mall and spoil us rotten. Overall, I think of the woman who, despite the best efforts of the Nazi regime to abrogate her spirit and capacity for optimism and loving-kindness, not only survived the Holocaust, but thrived and passionately devoted her life to her family and community.
So again, maybe the Nazis did succeed in turning many individuals into complete Muselmänner. But, this characterisation does not do justice to the power of human agency in the face of extreme adversity. It does not do justice to the lived experiences of my grandparents, and the numerous other parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters who rejected the Nazi machine’s forceful attempts to reduce them to bare life, and lived to tell their stories. In the words of the author from the beginning, ‘This will be the test of our lives’. So many individuals passed this ‘test’ with flying colours.
Note: I’m going to do a bit of shameless plugging here. My father, Eugene Pogany, wrote a book detailing my family’s experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust. If you are interested in an (unbiasedly) engrossing read, check out In My Brother’s Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust (Penguin 2000).