The Holocaust has always felt near to me. This has been the case for me since childhood. My grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi who left Lithuania for South Africa in 1932, satisfied every stereotype of the Eastern European Jew — the beard, the accent, everything. In him I always saw what could have been. Late in his life, he claimed to know what was coming, but I honestly doubt it. I think it is more likely that, having finished his yeshiva training in the early 1930s, he managed to find a good job offer in Johannesburg, and he took it.
In any event, since childhood, I read widely, asked lots of questions, and learned as much as I could long before I ever thought about a career in bioethics.
None of my immediate family members died in the Holocaust. Some more distant family members almost certainly did. Nevertheless, it has always shaped my perspective not just on what it means to be a Jew in the world, but on man’s seemingly infinite capacity for atrocity and evil.
Many scholars have argued that, given the signal involvement of the health care professions (esp. doctors) in the apparatus of the Third Reich, Western bioethics in general arises from the ashes of the Holocaust. Whether this is the case, I refer to the Third Reich often in my teaching, especially in connection with my interest in the Milgram experiments, cognitive biases, and our very human tendencies to groupthink and obedience to authority.
I think these topics hold troubling and disturbing implications for our most basic commitments and obligations to treat each other humanely. Namely, a large amount of historical AND psychological evidence suggests that, given the right social cues (which do NOT involve compulsion or duress), the vast majority of us are capable of unspeakable cruelty. Worse yet, striving to be a virtuous person does not seem much insulation against these capacities, for lots of people who seem in most walks of life to be decent human beings (i.e., good to their families) have committed atrocities (i.e., participated in genocide).
The evidence suggests that while most of us will in fact participate in cruelty and violence, a relatively small proportion of us will resist. How we can ensure we will number among the resisters is something which I believe no one really knows — or at least, I do not — and we are forced to grapple with the conclusion that each of us is much more likely to number among the perpetrators of atrocity than the dissenters.
These matters sit heavily on me; they always have.
My Center and our invited guests have spent the last four days delivering panels, talks, and programming for our Holocaust Genocide Contemporary Bioethics Program (marking Holocaust & Genocide Awareness Week). I spent some time preparing over the last few weeks; reviewing key texts, trying to shore up my understanding and awareness of key themes and pedagogies.
This week, we delivered a program that touched all four campuses of the University of Colorado: the Anschutz Medical Campus, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Downtown Denver. The details of these talks and panels are on our website, if you’re interested.
These issues are so crucial for health care professionals, IMO. I am glad and honored to have participated.
But it was far more difficult than I had ever expected. I feel empty and hollowed out. I am drained by my feelings of connection and proximity, by my heritage, by my feelings of the ever-present peril of being a Jew in the world, and by the weight and gravity of the matters discussed and shared this week.
Last night, I almost burst into tears when listening to our expert, Tessa Chelouche, talk about the Hunger Study run by the Jewish doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the final words of the leading physician, Israel Milejkowski, who died in 1942. Milejkowski, who was starving alongside his patients, orchestrated the meticulous documentation of the effects of starvation, and smuggled the results out to a Polish doctor. I barely managed to choke back tears upon hearing some of his final words, from his written introduction to the study:
A last few words to honor you, the Jewish doctors. What can I tell you, my beloved colleagues and companions in misery. You are a part of all of us. Slavery, hunger, deportation, those death figures in our ghetto were also part of your legacy. And you by your work could give the henchmen the answer, ‘Non omnis moriar,’ ‘I shall not wholly die.’
Basically: I’ve had a run-in with the Dementors this week.
So, here I sit, eating chocolate and listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.