Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

Some do history by the numbers, analyzing statistics and trends, holding the people involved at arm’s length. Others of us practice history as empathy, attempting to break down the wall of time and space that separates us from those whom we long to understand. Such empathy has a price. I cannot hope to do justice to the victims of the Holocaust, see through their eyes, think thoughts like they thought, feel feelings like they felt, and have any hope of surviving if I do not take time to look away. The danger is twofold: either that I, as Nelly Sachs feared that she would, might “collapse into dust” beneath the weight of it all; or, still more dangerously, that I would become jaded, numb, and aloof to the all-encompassing suffering of the victims. No, I need to feel their pain if I am to do my work well – my work on their behalf, if I have done them any justice. Their pain must be real for me, even if it means that it must not be ever-present. I tune out so that I can tune in soon, renewed. I look away so that I can look back later, look longer, and with fresh eyes see more clearly than I have heretofore seen.

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