The Holocaust is arguably the most documented event in human history. But most people don’t know that Jews and non-Jews in Europe frequently enjoyed good relations prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Daniel Mendelsohn wants to change that perception. On Oct. 23, Mendelsohn, author of the 2006 bestseller “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” (Harper Collins), will deliver the 2019 Jerome S. Cardin Memorial Lecture at Loyola University Maryland in North Baltimore.
Mendelsohn’s lecture is titled “Latkes with the Priests in Lwow: Jews and Christians, Harmony and Horror in Prewar Poland.”
Mendelsohn, who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, is an author, essayist, critic and the Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College.
Jmore recently spoke with Dr. Mendelsohn, whose third collection of essays, “Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones” (New York Review Books), will be published this month.
Jmore: How’d you decide on this particular topic?
Mendelsohn: When they invited me to give the lecture, I was aware that it was supposed to be something to do with Jewish-Christian relations. I got to thinking about certain kinds of stories that I heard while I was researching [‘The Lost’]. When we think of the history of Jewish-Christian relations in Eastern Europe, we tend to think of the Holocaust.
The fact is that places like the place that my family came from were multi-cultural and there was harmony between the various populations. And so the question is, how do you go from a harmonious, multi-cultural, small-town environment where three populations — Jews, Polish Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox — are basically living in relative harmony and get to the point where people are killing each other?
I thought I would explore that a little more in this lecture than I was able to do in the book. I thought it would be interesting for people to actually hear some of these very charming stories and how things developed from that.
You refer to this transition as “harmony to horror.” Why should we explore the pre-war ‘harmonious’ times?
They’re two sides of the same coin. You appreciate one by understanding the other. I want to remind people that the disintegration into atrocities was apparent in many ways. These were communities where people had gotten along fairly well for many centuries, and you remind people of that. They have to think of the question of how it fell apart. You just can’t think about the one without thinking about the other.
Have you drawn any conclusions?
As far as I can tell, someone in power gives people permission in some way to be shameless. That’s when things get dangerous. And it’s not that people were all angelic before Hitler came along. There were long histories of anti-Semitism and Jew-hating, and the whole nine yards. But at a certain point, somebody comes along and releases people from their sense of shame, and when a person does that, people start to do bad things. They won’t do them until they’re given permission.
Do you see this phenomenon in contemporary America?
I see polarization, high public officials encouraging hate speech and bullying. When you refer to people as not even human, you’re doing things Hitler did. When you make fun of disabled people, which [President Trump] did, that’s the beginning of a slippery slope that ends with gassing disabled people. And that was the first atrocities of the European Holocaust, which was this mass execution of disabled and mentally challenged people.
So I see many of the same factors. Also, economic pressure, economic distress, nativism, anti-immigrant feelings — these are all things that were swirling around in the 1930s as well.
I was also very alarmed when the Holocaust Museum in Washington issued a statement after somebody tried to compare the border camps [near] Mexico to concentration camps. The statement said this is nothing like the Holocaust. That is an extremely dangerous position to take. The Holocaust did not become the Holocaust until they started doing things like putting people in border camps. And to say this is nothing like the Holocaust denies history the power it can have. The Holocaust is unique in many ways, but in other ways it’s not unique.
Does it frustrate you to feel we haven’t learned from the past?
The one constant throughout history is that human nature doesn’t change, but I don’t think that should lead us to a fatalistic abandonment of responsibility. History demands that we try at least. People who are not interested in history cannot be made to understand it. Obviously, people in power are often in power because they don’t care, and I think the current [American] government has shown itself not only not interested in history but eager to flout history and the study of history and the implications of history. All the more reason to study this.
How do we combat this trend?
You’re not allowed to retreat because that’s enabling. You have to get over your depression and dismay and incredulity and loss, and you have to do whatever you can do. Otherwise, you’re part of the problem. Look, as we all know, there were a lot of good people [during the Holocaust] who decided to do nothing and look the other way. Bad things happen, not just because bad people do bad things but because other people let them do that. And that’s something worth remembering, too.
The Cardin Memorial Lecture is free and open to the public. It will take place at Loyola University Maryland, McGuire Hall, the Andrew White Student Center, at 4501 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. For information, call 410-617-5273 or visit loyola.edu/cardinlecture.
A former Baltimore resident, Deborah Walike is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.
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