On Facing Evil While Looking Inward (Warning: May Contain Ethical Rambling)

I’ve just finished reading an electronic review copy of Marta Ascoli’s Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. As an Italian teenager, Ascoli, who is half Jewish, spent time in both Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. She was at the latter when liberation came at the end of WWII.

Reading about the death camps is distressing, but necessary, I believe. We need to remind ourselves regularly of the monstrosities we’re capable of—and I use that we deliberately. I’m pretty sure all of us, at least all of us  doing pleasure reading on the internet, spend most of our time forgetting or failing to notice the injustices around us. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that in this global age anyone living comfortably is a “good German”: hanging on to the security he or she has and trying to to be overwhelmed by the constant need and injustice surrounding us. I am not saying that “we” (whoever “we” are) have a system the equivalent to the Nazi death camps. I am saying that people are imprisoned, tortured, and killed every day, both in the U.S. and abroad, for the simple crime of being who they are: impoverished, female, a member of any one of hundreds of ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities (and a majority in one region can easily be a minority in another). The Nazis didn’t invent genocide and WWII certainly didn’t end it.

I’m not saying this because I hate myself or because I want others to hate themselves. Self loathing, as the great contemporary novelist Sherman Alexie reminds us, is really just a form of narcissism. (I’m the worst person in the world! No one is as horrible as me!) Even if there really is one worst person among all 7 billion plus of us, the odds are neither I nor you is that person.

What I found particularly moving about Ascoli’s book is the matter-of-factness with which she recounts her experiences. She isn’t emotionless, but she also doesn’t wallow in emotion. And her ability to bear witness to the terrible things she’s seen in her fellow humans makes it possible not just for us to deplore the evil in others, but to take ourselves to task (somewhat gently, perhaps) for our own evil. I would like to hope that in the face of a horror like the death camps I would speak up—but my government has done any number of things that I find deeply appalling (extraordinary rendition, for example), yet I don’t do much more than write a letter of protest or attend a rally. And sometimes I don’t even do that: I’m “too busy.”

We see some real monsters in Auschwitz Belongs to Us All, and I feel confident I’ll never become one of them. But what about the minor players, those who go along with things without searching their own consciences too rigorously? While many of the people who stop me on the street asking for money have “chosen” this lifestyle in one way or another or have other means of getting by, others no doubt are hungry,  have hungry children waiting in the car they’re living in, have become slaves to drugs that have made any other lifestyle impossible, are fleeing a home situation that was even more violent than the hunger and violence that now threatens them on the street. And I can’t always make the right call about who falls into which categories. I pretty much always buy food for a woman with bruises, but does that mean that someone is beating her up just to play on my sympathy? Am I keeping her in thrall by cooperating? Is that able-bodied-looking man half my age genuinely disabled (and we can argue about what that “genuinely” means)? Does physical disability merit more kindness than psychological disability? If I find someone frightening, does that justify me in failing to see his need?

My point here is that while some of the suffering we see is the product of deliberate action by “real mosters,” much of it is also the product of the limited compassion and generosity of people we would generally describe as “decent.”

How do we live with this knowledge?

On my good days, I try to live with it by choosing to do things I can. Maybe not all the things I could do if I were a hero and able to put myself on the line like a St. Frances or a Mother Teresa. But I choose some things. And on a good day, I can choose one or two more goods than I might on another day. On my bad days, I try not to waste time hating myself. For the heroes, doing right may be a game of all or nothing. For most of us, it’s a game of inches. But one inch of progress from each of us is seven billion inches. And seven billion inches is over 100,000 miles—or four tips around this blue-and-green world we inhabit.

Thank you, Marta Ascoli, for bearing witness. Thank you for doing it in a way that moves us, but that also leaves room for reflection.

Read Auschwitz Belongs to Us All. I’m pretty sure it will give you that extra inch of generosity our world is looking for.

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