The following, the second part of a two-part series, is excerpted from a talk originally given by Saul Bellow in 1988 and now published here for the first time. A footnote has been added by the editors.
In reading Lionel Abel’s memoir, The Intellectual Follies, I came upon an arresting passage in his chapter on the Jews. During the war he had heard accounts of the Nazi terror, Abel says, and reports of extermination camps in Eastern Europe.
But I had no real revelation of what had occurred until sometime in 1946, more than a year after the German surrender, when I took my mother to a motion picture and we saw in a newsreel some details of the entrance of the American army into the concentration camp at Buchenwald. We witnessed the discovery of the mounds of dead bodies, the emaciated, wasted, but still living prisoners who were now being liberated, and of the various means of extermination in the camp, the various gallows, and also the buildings where gas was employed to kill the Nazis’ victims en masse.
It was an unforgettable sight on the screen, but as remarkable was what my mother said to me when we left the theatre: She said, “I don’t think the Jews can ever get over the disgrace of this.” She said nothing about the moral disgrace to the German nation…, only about…a more than moral disgrace, and one incurred by the Jews. How did they ever get over it? By succeeding in emigrating to Palestine and setting up the state of Israel.
I too had seen newsreels of the camps. In one of them, American bulldozers pushed naked corpses toward a mass grave ditch. Limbs fell away and heads dropped from disintegrating bodies. My reaction to this was similar to that of Mrs. Abel—a deeply troubling sense of disgrace or human demotion, as if by such afflictions the Jews had lost the respect of the rest of humankind, as if they might now be regarded as hopeless victims, incapable of honorable self- defense, and, arising from this, probably the common instinctive revulsion or loathing of the extremities of suffering—a sense of personal contamination and aversion. The world would see these dead with a pity that placed them at the margin of humanity.
“Certainly, the Holocaust was a tragedy,” Abel says. And with a writer’s weakness for literary categories, he begins to talk about theories of tragedy:
When we think of tragedy we must remember that the best critics of tragedy considered as an art have told us that at the end of tragedy there must be a moment of reconciliation. The human spirit, offended by the excesses of the pitiable and the terrible, has to be reconciled to the reality of things. Some good must come of so much evil; and for the Jews, this good was found only in…
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