Monday, June 22, 2009

In the Face of True Evil, We ... are Fascinated

As my teaching load will be changing for next year and I'm maybe going to be doing a major unit on the Holocaust, I received an article about Miep Gies, one of Anne Frank's "Helpers", turning 100.

If for some reason you're not familiar with Anne Frank's story, she and her family hid for two years from the Nazis in a secret attic until they were eventually discovered and sent to concentration camps where, with the exception of Anne's father Otto Frank, they all perished. Miep Gies, a former employee of Otto Frank's spice business, agreed to help hide his family in a secret annex above the company's warehouse in 1942. After the betrayal (and who was behind the betrayal remains a mystery to this day), Gies picked up the papers Anne left behind, eventually giving them to Anne's father. Otto Frank published his daughter's memoirs as The Diary of a Young Girl in 1947, and since then the memoir has served as a stark reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust from the brutally honest view of a young teenager suffering atrocities that I, for one, cannot even imagine.

The article about Gies was interesting on a variety of levels, not the least of which was her tribute to the "unnamed heroes" who willingly risked their lives to help Jews escape certain death at the hands of Nazis. The prewar Jewish population of the Netherlands was around 140,000. Of those, 107,000 were arrested and deported. According to the Red Cross, only 5,200 made it out on the other side of the war. Another 24,000 Dutch Jews, the Franks being the most visible example, went into hiding through the help of others. Of those, 8,000 were betrayed in exchange for a payoff or were simply hunted down.

Gies worked for Otto Frank as he prepared and published The Diary of a Young Girl. She went on to be an active letter-writer to people with questions from all over the world. Even after Otto Frank's 1980 death, Gies has worked tirelessly to speak out against "Holocaust-deniers" and those who write Anne Frank's memoir as a forgery. Gies herself wrote a book, the 1987 offering Anne Frank Remembered.

This is of course a very brief overview of an article I found to be fascinating. I've read The Diary of a Young Girl. I've read Elie Wiesel's Night. The Devil's Arithmetic. After the War. Number the Stars. Summer of My German Solider. Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany. I've even read Mein Kampf, just to get a complete picture. Southern writer Pat Conroy tells some fascinating Holocaust tales in his novel Beach Music, although its only one strand of an incredibly complex storyline. And then there are the movies--my two favorites are Schindler's List and Vite e Bella (Life is Beautiful), although I cry copious tears at both.

Despite all that, the Holocaust is not an obsession with me as it is with many, in large part because it is so viscerally, unspeakably evil that the mere mention makes my stomach start cramping up. The world that I live in--the one that I've created in my mind, if that makes any sense--is one where people are willing to do whatever they can to help somebody else, where kindness and generosity are tantamount, where unspeakable horror doesn't happen. Of course I know academically that this isn't true, and I'm well aware that I'm quite alone in my insular world, but it makes it both easier and more difficult to focus on things like the Holocaust, evil incarnate.

That said, I do have a rather bizarre obession with the Manson murders that many people probably find out of whack. I can explain until the cows come home that it's the psychological mind control aspects and the time period that it happened in (I don't think Manson would have been able to pull off the deity thing any time before or beyond the late sixties/early seventies), but I suspect people might still find me weird for this one. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I certainly don't consider the Manson murders to be in any way, shape, or form similar to the Holocaust beyond the utter evil and blatant disregard for human life shown therein.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, evil is fascinating to a large percentage of people. It is! Are we trying to avoid evil potential in ourselves by learning about genocides or gruesome murders? Does it make us feel better to say, "I know I'd NEVER do that?" Why the interest in the macabre?

Stephen King wrote a short story called "Apt Pupil" (it was made into an absolutely dreadful movie). Your typical All-American boy has a certain fascination with the Holocaust. Imagine his surprise when he discovers through observation and young adolescent detective skills that his neighbor was once a member of the SS. A fairly powerful, very violent member of the SS. He blackmails the old man by requiring stories about the concentration camps in exchange for his silence. Of course, things get out of control and the boy obsessed with all things Holocaust learns how to become a violent killer himself through his relationship with the old Nazi.

Obviously, it's a work of fiction, but it emphasizes some obvious questions ... Why the obsession with the true face of evil? When does it cross the line to being unhealthy and even dangerous?