The title of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story came to mind when I read of the death of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust. She was 110, and grown up in Prague, where both Kafka and Mahler had been friends of her family. Herz-Sommer had gained some fame in her last years for her remarkable spirit, and her dedication to the music of Chopin, which helped sustain her during her time in a Nazi camp — and probably saved her and her son from death.
She was in the “model” camp at Theresienstadt, used by the Nazis as a showcase for the Red Cross, to show their ‘humane’ treatment of prisoners. (Although the very fact of imprisoning, say, a young woman and her young child simply because they were Jewish perverts the very notion of “humane,” however the prisoners might have been treated.) And of course,in reality, the regimen in Theresienstadt was harsh — tens of thousands died there — although it was lightened from time to time in preparation of a Red Cross visit.
Herz-Sommer was part of the camp orchestra. The New York Times recounts her experience with the orchestra, and how it saved her from the fate of many others in the camp, including her husband:
“These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,” she later said. “Through making music, we were kept alive.”
Terezin was a transit camp. From there, Jews were deported to forced-labor and death camps; of some 140,000 Jews who passed through Terezin, nearly 90,000 were deported to “almost certain death” at such camps, according to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Some 33,000 died in Terezin itself.
One of the prisoners transported from Terezin was Leopold Sommer, who in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz, and on to Dachau. He died there, probably of typhus, in 1945, a month before liberation.
Music spared Mrs. Herz-Sommer a similar fate. One night, after she had been in Terezin for more than a year, she was stopped by a young Nazi officer, as Ms. Stoessinger’s book recounts. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “I only want to thank you for your concerts. They have meant much to me.” He turned to leave before adding: “One more thing. You and your little son will not be on any deportation lists. You will stay in Theresienstadt until the war ends.”
Thus she survived, due to the sentimental caprice of a Nazi officer, who had doubtless facilitated (or even directed) the transport of thousands of others to death camps. This is always the face of power, of dominance and control: we give, or we take away, we spare, or kill, at our own whim; there is nothing you can do about it.
By a bitter irony, the story about Herz-Sommers’ death appeared on the NYT website alongside a story about the Obama Administration wrestling with the “thorny question” of whether they should murder an American citizen in cold blood or not. It was the usual fluffy “process piece,” where White House insiders relay the thoughtfulness and moral struggle of the noble president and his death advisers as they pore over their “kill lists” each week. The Times has become the primary ‘normalizer” of this unbelievably hideous, barbaric and inhumane practice, which of course extends not only to named, specific targets like the American in question here, but to unnamed, unknown individuals who are murdered by the president and his agents in “signature strikes,” attacks based on certain ill-defined “behaviors” recorded by robot drones.
The president and his agents kill people — or spare them — without any due process of law, any oversight, without giving their victims a chance to defend themselves or even prepare themselves for death. They decide, they strike — out of the blue, with drone missiles, inhuman, implacable, and very often killing other people in the vicinity of the impact. They kill in perfect safety, without the slightest threat to their own person, inviolable, completely dominant, striking down defenseless victims who have no power to strike back. In this they are no different from the officers in the Nazi camps.
It may be that on occasion President Obama is moved by a sentimental whim to spare some potential victim. Perhaps he’s had a touching moment with one of his daughters at breakfast, or seen a photo that called up a piercing memory of his mother — or perhaps he’s just been listening to a piece of music that moved him. And so, on that particular “Terror Tuesday,” when he sits down with advisers to go over the list of “extrajudicial killings” they should authorize that week, Obama hears the intelligence report on a target — a young man, say, who had (allegedly) joined a jihadi group after his mother had died — and, still under the influence of his sentimental mood, says, “Let’s hold off on this one, fellas. Let’s get a little more data on this.” Thus the young man is spared, and they move on to other targets, most of whom are not so lucky, and are marked for death.
Obama and his advisors don’t see themselves as monsters, any more than the Nazi officer who saved Herz-Sommer did. They see themselves, as he did, as moral men, carrying out difficult but necessary duties yet still retaining their humanity, their compassion, their capacity for kindness and empathy. But of course none of that matters. What matters is not how we regard ourselves, for good or ill, but how we actually treat others, the actuality of what we do.
History records saints of many religions who spent their entire lives in a paroxysm of self-hatred — for their unseemly lusts, murderous rages, sickening thoughts and urges, their inner madness — yet acted toward others with love and self-sacrifice, humility and service. If they acted with love, what did it matter what they might have felt or thought in the always-churning, flowing, passing mental and emotional streams that pass through our minds? And similarly, what does it matter how righteous and self-regarding we feel, how deeply we might be touched by some affecting situation or work of art, if our actions lead to evil?
The sentimentality of brutal power spared Herz-Sommer, but the life of deep meaning she made in the aftermath stands as a stark rebuke to the very notion of domination.
While writing this, I thought of another piece I did a while back that touched briefly on some of these themes — the dichotomy between inner life and outward action, malevolent currents and ordinary goodness, etc. It even mentioned a ‘grand lady’ of ancient age. Of course this wasn’t a reference to Herz-Sommer, but the piece did seem somewhat apt in this context, so here’s a link.