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Reviewed by:
  • Problems Unique to the Holocaust
  • Zev Garber
Problems Unique to the Holocaust, edited by Harry James Cargas. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. 208 pp. $20.00.

On August 18, 1998, Harry James Cargas, one of the great Christian scholars on the Shoah in the 20th century, died. 1 He authored and edited 34 books, nine of which deal with the Shoah. His last effort is the book under review. The title notwithstanding, this volume of essays seeks to examine ethical and moral issues related to three major groups affected by the genocide of European Jewry during World War II: perpetrator, [End Page 155] victim, and bystander. The heart of this collection of essays is informed by the editor’s review in Commonweal of Calel Perechodnik, Am I a Murderer? Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman, ed. and trans. Frank Fox (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996). In it, we are told of Perechodnik’s deathbed confession that his decision to join the Ordnungs-dienst on Nazi promises to save his family proved naive and contributed to sending his wife and daughter (and thousands of other Polish Jews) to Treblinka and their subsequent death. Cargas is moved by Perechodnik’s pain-filled testimony that he alone is responsible and wonders if he is not too self-judgmental and thus “mitigating circumstances” should be considered in explaining his predicament and exonerating his fated suicide. The contributors agree, and each in his or her own way contributes to the scholarly debate of whither the human heart and will in the eye of the Night.

Steven L. Jacobs probes translation and commentary in English of responsa from the Shoah to cultivate a rabbinic response to the question, Is it ever legitimate to betray others to save yourself or loved ones? He discovers a mixed response reflecting the ambiguity of Holocaust halachah on the value of human life; that is to ask, who must die so that another may live. David Patterson investigates the problem by appealing to the moral dilemma of motherhood in sacred and secular writings. He concludes that we the living cannot condemn the taking of life for the sake of the few but praises more the birthing of new Jewish life as the hope of the many. Susan Pentlin restricts the problem to the accounts of witnesses who survive the ghetto and camps and finds catharsis and silence, the price of living “in the gray zone.” Charlotte Guthmann Opfermann bears her own personal testimony that morally speaking certain self-inflicted Jewish deaths are not suicides but murder by the Nazi oppressor. Jack Nusan Porter analyzes the suicides of Jean Améry, Bruno Bettelheim, Paul Celan, Terrence Des Pres, Jerzy Kosinski, Primo Levi, and Robert Maxwell and posits a common thread: isolated, alienated intellectuals touched by the Shoah who lack a deep-seated religious commitment are more prone to taking their own life than ordinary Holocaust survivors.

Didier Pollefeyt speaks on the fragility of ethical life on planet Auschwitz, where in the environment of extreme inhumanity one is compelled “to choose between the loss of breath (and life) and the lost of dignity,” and Diane M. Plotkin evaluates how much “life [is] worthy of life” in the shadow of “scientific racism,” Nazi experimentation, and cases of abuse in modern medico-legal practice. Robert Frey believes not in allies in the sky to explain Shoah or to teach its lessons; rather, he offers a spirit of intellectual humanism forged in the bedrock of scientific realism and driven by objectified truth.

Indifferent bystanders and involved Christian scholarship aren’t strangers to Shoah education, but they haven’t necessarily been included in many anthologies on the [End Page 156] Holocaust either. 2 Most collections revolve around Nazi atrocities, plight and rescue of victims, ethics and morality, etc. The inclusion of bystanders and Christian scholars is validated in the title: Eric Sterling writes on the non-accidental onlooker in the spirit of Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the socialist . . . trade unionists . . . Jew . . . then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”; Alastair G. Hunter argues that the judaization of the Shoah (uniqueness, Jewish priority...

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