To build on yesterday’s post, yesterday I had the unique experience of walking through the Holocaust exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance. It is one thing to learn about the Holocaust in a history class, but it’s another thing to walk ‘through’ it. I think the exhibit portrayed the inhumanity as viscerally and interactively as American laws and humanity deemed possible, without hiring full-time actors being treated like prisoners and SS prison guards and Capos (and without treating us like prisoners for an hour or a day). Even then, I don’t think I’ll ever (want to) understand what it’s like to be fed a few ounces of bread every 4 days, to be stripped of all possessions and loved ones, to face a forked pathway not knowing which one leads to a gas chamber, to see newborn babies dropped several stories into cattle cars.
What’s scary and intriguing is how broad the range of human emotion is. The exhibit kept reiterating the phrase ‘ordinary people’ to emphasize that it wasn’t just Hitler that drove the Holocaust. It took the contributions of everyday professors, bankers, students, moms, dads, friends to export the Jews. It is pretty fucking scary to fathom genocide morphing into a social and cultural norm. Apparently, a German commander gave 500 of his troops the option of walking away, without punishment, from shooting a band of Jews dead in the forest. 400 stayed.
What’s intriguing and inspiring, though, is how some people maintained culture, art, creativity, existence, and meaning despite being stripped of everything humans normally have and deserve. Even though my brain hurt after the exhibit, (I felt my pre-frontal cortex hurting *glasses push-up*) I felt compelled to open Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, something I bought a few months ago but never opened. I didn’t really absorb all of its profoundness, but the book spends a great deal accounting what the author went through during the Holocaust, and objectively attempts to classify the stages of what a prisoner went through during the Holocaust from a psychological standpoint (shock, apathy, liberation). Frankl argues that it is impossible and pointless to find a general meaning of life, because you can’t possibly replicate an individual or her destiny. He believes it is up to the individual to provide a meaning for HER life, both for the specific demands of the moment and in general. The reason he survived, he believes, is that he found a meaning for all of his suffering. Although the concentration camp stripped him of literally everything, the one thing they could not take away was his freedom to define his own attitude.