Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Problem of Evil

Current book: Schindler's List
Pages read: 130 - 185

It's time for the catalog of Holocaust horrors. I won't reproduce it for you, because chances are good that you're fairly familiar with it, and frankly, I don't really want to write about it. Suffice it to say, as things worsen in Nazi-occupied Poland, more and more terrible stuff starts happening to Krakow's Jews, and Keneally details it for his reader. (Is it wrong of him to do so? No, not really - it's simply hard to take. It's important to remember that these things happened; it's just incredibly unpleasant.) Most of the Jewish population has already or is in the process of getting shipped to the concentration camps at this point, and Schindler is maintaining as complete a workforce as he possibly can, since he can save almost every person he employs.

Amon Goeth, a Nazi commander, moves his operations to Krakow, where he's put in charge of the work camps that have been populated by the emptying of Krakow's ghetto. (The camp is located at Plaszow, and I'll refer to it by that name in future.) Goeth wishes to continue the lucrative relationship between the Nazi forces and Schindler's factory, and asks him to move the operation inside the camp so that there won't have to be foot traffic between the locations each day. Schindler coaxes Goeth into letting him keep the factory separate from the camps, and it's clear that Schindler thinks this will allow him to maintain better working conditions.

Schindler clearly despises Goeth, who takes pleasure in his assigned task: the brutalization and extermination of thousands of innocent people. He, Schindler, is beginning to develop a sense of desperation and helplessness at the massive number of murders that occurs on a daily basis and his own powerlessness to save anything resembling a majority of the innocents that are at risk. However, Keneally is careful to address the fact that Schindler is almost forced into his heroic role. He is, after all, something of a war profiteer, especially at the beginning, using Jewish labor because it's cheap. He knows that his working conditions are significantly better than anyone else's, but he still signs up to be part of a slave labor market. It's clearly the lesser of two evils, but does that make it right? Is it acceptable, even necessary, to sign up to be part of a great dark machine of malice in order to save some of the lives it's working so hard to destroy?

It's the same question, really, as saving your own life by dismissing, even if only temporarily, your principles. It boils down to the question at the end of The Crucible. Do you stand up for what you believe, even if only verbally, and die to no end but that of your personal honor? Or do you denounce what you've formerly espoused, stain your honor forever, and live to prove that you're the person your words have belied? I've never come to a conclusion about what I think is correct. It is, perhaps, the most important question.

On another note entirely, the author makes a point through one of the characters in the book that the Nazis might have won World War II if they hadn't devoted so much manpower and so many resources to the extermination of the Jews. That hadn't occurred to me before, but it sure sounds plausible. It's rather a cruel irony that the obsessive, horrifying destruction of millions of people was, perhaps, responsible for the salvation of millions more - or even the salvation of the world itself.

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