On Easter Sunday, 1943, when all resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto had been crushed, the holiday crowds on their way from Mass “pushed through the streets to catch sight of Warsaw’s newest spectacle…Batteries of artillery were set up in Nonwiniarska Street, from which the Germans kept up a steady barrage against the ghetto. And everywhere the flame, and the stench of roasting human flesh. The sight was awesome—and exciting. From time to time a living torch would be seen crouched on a window sill and then leaping through the air. Occasionally one such figure caught in some obstruction and hung there. The spectators would shout to the German riflemen, ‘Hey, look over there!…no, over there!’ As each figure completed its gruesome trajectory, the crowds cheered” (Alexander Donat, “Our Last Days In The Warsaw Ghetto”).
The interest that the spectators took in this carnage was “medieval,” in the sense that the public massacre of Jews had in the Middle Ages provided the onlookers with a sense of their own righteousness. It must have been frightful to watch Jews burn, but in the Middle Ages they were feared and marked off with so much holy zeal that to watch them burn established your own credit with God. The Poles suffered atrociously at the hands of the Nazis, but at Easter time, a favorite time for pogroms, the average Pole could still attend church, walk the streets, sit in a park, work in an office, get legally married, attend to his children—and thus despise and fear the Jews, who were being hunted down with such raging hatred by a great power already at war with half the world, that it was impossible for the average Pole, growing up in an anti-Semitic society, not to feel disgust and loathing for the Jews precisely because they were so much hated. Just as in the Middle Ages the towns-people of Mainz, Toledo, Worms, and York, watching Jews being burned, could not help despising and fearing people who provoked so much odium, so in 1943 even many a patriot in the resistance was exasperated by the sufferings of the Jews—who were always the same and whose sufferings were the same, and who were so bewildered yet fatalistic as they were mown down in the hundreds, with their babies, by a single machine gunner smoking a cigarette. How could you identify with people who suffered so much and had no friendly Polish neighbors to escape to? How could you help drawing away from what the S.S. professors, watching an “action,” fastidiously (and in Latin) called “the asshole of the world?”
Suffering can make people disgusting. The people whose martyrdom was called an “extermination,” even to the destruction of a million of their children, made them not objects of compassion, but a disease to stay away from. The Nazis made it easy for the majority to stay away, to look away, to hold their noses, to shrug their shoulders. All very natural …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.