I am asked from time to time to explain my pre-occupation with the history of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and specifically the horrific events that have become generally known as “the Holocaust.”

The Nazi period in Germany (indeed the entire Second World War) is important to me because the events of this terrible time force me to confront the challenge of the most difficult and painful questions of the human condition. Events from the rise of Nazism to the tragic suffering that continued to plague the human community in the shadow of the Second World War, have the power to pull back the veil on the human condition and force me to confront the stark reality of the human condition.

The Nazi story is not unique in its capacity to stir troubling questions. But, there are things that make it uniquely accessible as a challenge to contemporary, particularly western, students.

The events of the Holocaust are relatively contemporary. I was born only nine years after Hitler committed suicide. The events of the Holocaust took place in a “civilized” western environment. The cultural differences that separate me from the Germany of 1933-1945 are significant; but there are also significant similarities between the world I inhabit today and the world in which Nazism emerged in 1933. There is a vast and accessible literature that has grown up around the Holocaust, much of it brilliantly and thoughtfully written. Tremendous intellectual effort has been extended in an attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust.

But, I study the Holocaust, not primarily as an intellectual exercise. I cherish no hope that I will find satisfactory “answers” to the Holocaust. To think that “answers” or even understanding might be available in face of the Holocaust is to diminish a sequence of events whose meaning can never be captured by the human intellect. There are no ultimately satisfying answers to the questions raised by Nazism. To seek “answers” is to diminish the horror and the tragedy represented by the realities of a vicious intolerable totalitarian system.

The first lesson of Holocaust studies is that there are vast dimensions of human experience and history that lie far outside the human capacity to comprehend. Any genuine confrontation with the Holocaust must lead to deep humility and a profound awareness of the limitations of human intellect.

Study of the Holocaust is an exercise in honesty and self-awareness. I wrestle with the questions this history demands I face in the hope that I may come to live a more genuine and deeply authentic human life.

As sociologist Gerald E. Markle writes,

When we examine the Holocaust, we inevitably – perhaps painfully – examine ourselves.

I want to face the questions of the Holocaust because they remind me of the profound limitations of my capacity to make sense of life. I ask Holocaust questions always with the wisdom of Elie Wiesel in mind when he wrote,

…it isn’t easy to live always under a question mark. But who says that the essential question has an answer? The essence of man is to be a question, and the essence of the question is to be without answer. (Wiesel, Elie. The Town Beyond the Wall. Trans. Stephen Becker. NY: Schocken Books, 1982 [orig. pub. 1964], p. 176)

To live “without answer” is to have my heart broken open to the possibility of a deeper reality that includes but transcends my intellectual capacities. I seek to live in response to the prompting of this “deeper reality.”

In the most practical terms, I study the Holocaust in the hope that I may be moved to respond to human suffering in my day (like the  current Syrian refugee crisis, or the person in my office whose life is racked with pain) in ways that are more compassionate and just.

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Tomorrow I hope to post some of the questions the Holocaust drives me to confront.

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