Stoicism and the Holocaust

In his book on Moses, Martin Buber holds that the Bible story cannot be taken literally yet is not unhistorical: something happened that was, to those people, supernatural or crazy, and the account we have received was their attempt to cope with the experience, to regain their wits, to reconstitute themselves in the world that had been transformed. Reading these interviews from Hiroshima collected by Robert Jay Lifton of Yale, I have no doubt that those people too experienced something crazy and supernatural on August 6, when they were unprepared, thinking of other things, and their senses and passions had to confront existentially what their categories of understanding were not adequate to—this is Kant’s definition of the sublime.

The evidence is clear that the experience was religious, metaphysical. Lifton interviewed about seventy people, uneducated folk like shopkeepers, peasants, housewives, outcast boys; and educated professionals like physicists, sociologists, writers, preachers. There is little essential difference in the reports; again and again we hear the familiar topics of theology. They insist—it is seventeen years later—on the abiding presentness of the event. They refuse to betray the sacred literalness of its detail. The event was Great, some could even speak of a “quicker happiness” in the sense of awakening from the illusions of this world. They are Chosen People. Many have stigmata like marks of the Lord Jesus. They form a mystical fellowship with a mission. They are a sacrifice. They are to be liberators of the out-caste and apostles of peace. They are despised but they are the stone that the builders rejected. They are dead to this world. “The city,” says the Mayor (of Nagasaki), “has been rebuilt under the protection of the souls of the dead.” One must be morally perfect and not sell the experience to money-changers. Indeed, according to some, any speech and self-initiated or socially initiated effort are a profanation. One must safeguard purity by refined taboos, e.g., not wear nylon stockings for they are made by DuPont. Yet since there has been a reversal of values, it is incumbent on people to “despoil the Egyptians,” e.g., to operate on the black market. The matrix of human existence has broken down; there has been a wound in the order of being: one cannot live unless there are a new heaven and new earth. “I saw actual hell in this world.” Traditional religion, Buddhist or Catholic, cannot cope with the new fact. The new dispensation belongs to all mankind. “The A-Bomb represents the termination of Western thought.” But some day the lion will lie down with the lamb—

They dream:
that those swine in man’s shape
who do not know how to use the power from the earth’s center except for slaughter
survive only in illustrated books for the little ones.
That the energy of ten million horsepower per gram
be delivered out of the atom into the hands of the people.
That the rich harvest of science
be conveyed …

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Letters

Victims of Hiroshima April 25, 1968