Archive for August, 2011

Several months ago, I had the pleasure to interview Joshua Greene who is an expert in the Holocaust, Yoga philosophy and Hinduism, and filmmaking. His eclectic publications include Gita Wisdom (on the Bagavad Gita), Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison, and Witness: Voices of the Holocaust, and his films include Justice at Dachau. Here’s some of our interview from May of 2010, which I incorporated parts of into Needle in the Bone:

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: How are we to respond to the Holocaust, to take it in and really understand it?

Joshua Greene: There’s an entire universe of responses. Your question predisposes that we’re obligated to establish a relationship, and some would would say we need to move forward, so there are people who will avoid the issue altogether for one reason or another. I don’t know if it’s possible to say that one response is right and another is wrong. From a purely practical point of view, there are legal safeguards that have been implemented because of the war — legal rights, laws of extradition laws, rights of women and children, ways to establish safeguards not there before Nuremberg. You can look at that and say we’ve made progress. From another equally valid perspective, the genocides continue so what good has our progress done us? That’s a rather cynical perspective. We crawl our way toward civilization, and every inch in an inch closer.

CMG: Many believe the Holocaust is different from all other genocides because of the cold calculation of the Nazis and how they mechanized killing like never before. What do you make of this?

JG: The difference of the Holocaust isn’t of much consequence, and some people do see a specificity and difference with the Shoah. I would rather call it the Shoah than the Holocaust, which is a word preempted, out of sensitivity to those who survived that period and those who didn’t survive, and to the second and third generations. It behooves us to acknowledge their reaction, even if it may not be our own, and they have every right to say the Holocaust is different. Comparing who suffered more is a rather cold and useless exercise.

CMG: You mentioned last night that there are things we can learn from studying the Holocaust. Could you elaborate on that now?

JG: Are there things we can learn? Yes, but we should do it with our feet on the ground. It’s very easy for people to go along, even intelligent men and women under the wrong circumstances will completely revert to some less civilized mindset. We can learn a lot of things. The tendency has been, at least in the popular media, to imposed redemptive messages, probably because we’re obsessed with closure, finding some way to get on with our lives if we can at least say we’ve got the state of Israel now, we’re so much better off than we were (and I mean without the Hollywood version, the Shindler’s List and Jakob’s Liar versions — even Spielberg, who should have known better because he’s a storyteller).

CMG: Back to my first question, how do we stand in relation with the Holocaust in a way that has integrity and doesn’t just fall into the Hollywood version of it all?

JS: How to stand in relation with this? Don’t manipulate the Holocaust into some message about the indomitable human spirit. A group in Long Island was going to make a film about survivors living in Long Island, and they wanted to call them heroes. So the six million who died, they weren’t noble? They didn’t have human spirit? We view having survived as having a heroism that isn’t there. Survivors talk about being dehumanized. We don’t want to look at something so dark because we’re afraid we can’t handle it, so we pigeonhole it, have our two-week unit on Anne Frank, and then move onto [to a unit in school curriculum on] environmentalism. It’s tragic that such complex subjects are forced into easily digested capsules. Someone who refuses to know is saying ‘I can’t live with confusion and doubt, I can’t deal with not knowing. The idea of confusion and doubt terrifies me.’ It’s impossible to understand the enormity of it but we have to understand what we’re capable of understanding. It doesn’t work to say that “We’ll be part of humanity, we’ll be part of a progressive human culture, but this little pocket of history has to stay outside our realm of interest.”

CMG: How do you reconcile your studies of the Holocaust with your studies of Yoga?

JG: You don’t reconcile it, and you shouldn’t try, yet the Holocaust does show us when we fall from our nature, we can fall very far….There’s as much risk in over-simplying history as there is oversimplifying theology. Both lead to fanaticism. These people mean well. Well, they think they’re on a mission. I have no doubt that Nazi propogandists believed their own rhetoric, that these races are not truly human. If you look at the dominant philosophy of the Nazi era, it was very heavily Darwinism [based on] biochemical, real physicality…and what it means to be a human being. If you define human life in very biochemical terms, this set of biochemicals is better than that set because it functions more efficiency and is more pure, then obviously we have to eliminate the inferior biochemicals. There was no room in that period for any transcendent vision of the self, no place for a nefish — a soul — would have meant having to acknowledge the divinity of life.

CMG: How does yogic philosophy fit into what you believe about the divinity of life?

JG: I find it very engaging and fascinating to look at the Holocaust through the yoga lens, the transcendent process of yoga, which alters our perspective on policy-making. Are we — from the perspective of the law — are we moral, ethical creatures responsible for our our behavior or subconscious creatures, vulnerable to unbringing and self-conscious. Laws are formed accordingly. How you define humanity affects policy. It also affects our relationship with the environment. There comes a point where you can’t rule by coercion. That pain in this life is inevitable, suffering is optional. How much you suffer is a quesiton of the itnernal story they tell themselves. If someone is shot in battle, thinking, ‘I’m still alive, I will be sent home, I’ll probably get decorated, they’ll welcome me as a hero, I’ll go to a military hospital, and maybe there’ll be a cute nurse…’ then when the paramedics come with morphine, the soldier says, ‘I’m good. Give it to someone who needs it more than me,’ and then there’s the opposite story [which is a story of suffering as much as possible, which increases the suffering]. Yoga changes the internal story we tell ourselves.

The Facts of the Matter

Posted: August 18, 2011 in History, Writing

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be going through the manuscript sentence by sentence, checking little facts of history against my research and against comments Lou and Jarek have given me to make sure I’m as accurate as possible. If I think of the thousands of spinning facts filling this book — from the number of people killed overall in World War II (over 60 million) to the name of the firm Jarek’s father worked for in Poland (Brown Bovery) — my mind will turn to mass of anxiety. But if I just go page by page, looking things up, reading the little corrections the men have given me, and keeping myself adequately caffeinated and hooked up to ongoing rock music (today, Springsteen radio!), I can make it through the multitudes.

At the same time, I know how important getting these details right is, especially since one of the premises behind this book is questioning some of the larger myths about the Holocaust, such as the Jews being portrayed as helpless lambs or the Poles as angry anti-Semites. While I’ve always been a big picture kind of gal, I’m nesting down into the details of the details right now with a even more oy-vey task ahead after this: double-checking all the footnotes.