On the Holocaust

This is the first blog ever. As to offer an insight into my thinking, the processes of my mind, and the way I look at things, let me share this talk I gave at an Air Force Base in Tucson. I was asked to address Holocaust survivors as well as officers, airmen and airwomen.

On the Holocaust

When chaplain McCrory asked me to speak today, I was immediately overwhelmed with the task. I was not flattered; rather, I was moved — and very concerned not only
that I speak with truth and force, but that I also be sensitive, for my book has been called pornographic — and holy.

As s writer i must see, and after I see to tell the truth, much like Teiresias telling Oedipus to lay off mom. The second injunction is to speak from the heart, not the mind, for the mind is a great conditioner. One must be free to croak some semblance of the truth
And the third rule is to get to the truth free of conditioning and self-censorship, to excavate within oneself like an oil drill…that is the task of a writer.
And when one luckily hits bedrock, when one tastes truth, it often is unpalatable. When the writer knows he has succeeded that more than compensates for the distasteful truths he may have unearthed, those gritty geodes of revealed truth.
I am not an expert on the Holocaust, nor are you. A survivor is not an expert on the Holocaust. One scholar wisely compared the Holocaust to a terrible train wreck; people wounded, dead, some wandering about in pain and confusion. It depends where you are in the train wreck; this determines your perspective, your feelings.
We are not even experts on ourselves. Do you really believe, more than a hundred years after Freud, that you are controlling or operating through rational and conscious effort; I think not. A spat with a son, daughter or spouse leaks unconscious forces. The greatness of Freud is that he tried to rationally, that man of the Enlightenment, examine the irrational, knowing full well he could go only so far. With that in mind, in my book I tried to examine the mind of the killer, the executioner, and I only succeeded when I allowed myself to become the Nazi, the killer. In that mode I was able to access some measure of insight. Actors do this if they are good actors; they attempt to access those parts of themselves that they, like us, keep away from themselves. Everyone in this audience is unaware on different levels of who he or she is. We are not only blinded by the dark but by the light as well. I imagine the best we can do is to stumble about in the kitchen junk drawer looking for the flashlight when the lights are out. For me this is a fair definition of humanity.

On this day we remember. Memory is one of the great themes — and gifts — of Judaism. We carry our loved ones in our minds, the greatest digital camera of them all. It is in the memory that we keep alive the goodness, the sacrifice, the family ties we cherish. My deceased wife is very alive in me, almost a decade after her death. I am the sconce that holds her flame. That is all we have, is it not?

So, on this day I honor those innocents by not “sweetening” the Holocaust. Oh, no. I don’t Anne Frank it. Anne Frank’s diary was written while she was still outside of the camps, hidden, of course, but free to hold pen and paper. Indeed, some scholars do not consider it part of Holocaust literature. Unfortunately her diary has been used to soften, to ease horrific truths.

And what are these truths — and here I must take a risk with you.

— I have observed in my attempt to understand evil that given circumstances, given time and place, given events and opportunity, man is a killer.

— Although there were altruists during the Holocaust who saved Jews and others, they were rare. And we know that too.

— I have observed that man is a forgetful creature, and he repeats.

Freud’s great contribution was the repetition compulsion, the behaviors of individuals to constantly repeat behaviors, often consciously, often totally oblivious to and unaware of consequences — I submit Elizabeth Taylor and her many marriages; Anna Nicole Smith and her recurring drug issues; and the greatest example of all — war. There are enough books in all the libraries of the world that clearly tell us of the stupidities of war. Yet we repeat.

— I have observed, in a transitory state of paranoia and writer concern, that the man walking down the block might very well become my willing executioner if he so willed it. I submit the events in Virginia Tech.

And how do you go about living, Mr. Freese, with these thoughts?

The DNA in my body wins out; I enjoy the dusk, I enjoy the good and slow shower, the smell of roses, a good bagel and a sublime bialy. Life compels me to go on. I did not die when my wife died — that would have been a betrayal. I went on. What is a survivor but some one who goes on. After the war, I learned, social service experts engaged holocaust victims with great empathy and tried to help them bring order to their lives. What was observed was not a few of the survivors wanted other things, a job, a new location, new skills. In short, they wanted to live, to begin again. This is life.

On one hand, I struggle to balance the failure of evolution in not making us whole human beings, for stationing the primitive T-Rex in our brains, and on the other hand, the great gifts of humanity: literature, architecture, the Decalogue, culture…Yet I know full well in my heart of darkness what I am capable of , what you are capable of. I never forget that, while my culture gives me meds to keep me sedated.

There is a Nazi in each of us, and we must ever be vigilant as to his existence; I have met him in person — I just look in the mirror. I see what he has told me, and I have shared it in a book. Conrad called it the “horror! the horror!” I call it Man, and what Man is capable of. I dread the Golem within.

We say “Never Again” — I assume that generally means that we will not allow genocide to occur again and in such horrific terms; but look about you; it is occurring.

The lament of the species is its moral sloth.

We are an “after the fact” species.

We do not act in preventative ways.

And in our present culture we are absorbed by our glut.

Unlike Elie Wiesel who correctly writes and speaks against indifference, I see it differently. I caution us against ourselves, our very own make-up as a species. I believe this is the more difficult task, the one we run from.

Psychotherapy, which I practiced, is known as the impossible profession; it is as much art as it is science. In fact Freud believed that a good therapist would be one without a medical degree, someone versed in arts, music, culture. I give you, Otto Rank or Erik Erikson, as examples.

As a therapist I was the Shakespearean soothsayer. Really what is meant by that is the truth sayer. “Beware the ides of the self,” I cautioned. People flee self-awareness. Nietzsche said it best, “knowledge is death.”

On this day I think, I brood more about what capacities do I, do you, do others have to see themselves clearly and not through a glass darkly. It is on this day I reflect not only on the millions lost, but on the moral imperative for each of us to examine ourselves, for insight and self-awareness are the only mortal inhibitions we have to prevent such horrors in the future.

Perhaps in schools, at a time and when age appropriate, we should stop teaching about the Holocaust as history, although essential. Rather, we should begin to help our children to see inwardly — psychologically, emotionally, perceptively, intuitvely — to see themselves clearly as creatures capable of great wrath.

Alas, it is too threatening to do so. Schools too often are agents of conditioning.

Is it not the real task, ultimately, to decondition ourselves? And that is the task of a lifetime, to see. Krishnamurti said it best: “The observer is the observed.”


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