the final semester of my undergrad was hard on me. really hard.
not that the work load was insane, it was pretty average. it was the content.
the content was harrowing.
i took two classes: one on the holocaust, and a capstone research and writing seminar. the holocaust is self-explanatory. the capstone research and writing seminar is basically the history major's get-out-of-school class. you research and write and produce one paper. your subject is somewhat dictated by the professor you have, as it has to fall under their area of expertise. my professor's area of expertise is modern russia.
one of the reasons i'm not going into a master's program in history is that i've never found an era of history that captivates my attention beyond all others. fernando pessoa wrote, "everything interests me, but nothing holds me."
this has been my experience in life. i like to learn about so many things, and the thought of pouring all of my energy and time into learning about one thing or era, at the expense of everything else, sounds like torture. it's great for some people, but not for me. that being said, i can tell you that there are certain periods and cultures that i love learning about, and some that i have absolutely zero interest in. modern russia would fall under the category of things i have absolutely zero interest in.
amazingly, i found a topic i loved. (maybe loved isn't the right word . . . i was passionate about it.) i wrote my paper on besprizornye (abandoned children) in russian between (roughly) 1914 to 1930. i focused on their experience, and the ways the government contributed to the problem and their suffering. at the height of the problem, there were 7.5 million bezprizornye in the soviet union. (that's not comprehensive, that's at one point in time.) it's safe to assume that at least half of them died of starvation, disease, or violence.
in my holocaust class we studied the usual things (build-up, politics, anti-semitism, concentration and death camps, etc.), but also spent a lot of time reading about the holocaust by bullets that took place all over central europe. for my personal project in the class i studied the kindertransport, an operation by which approximately 10,000 children (mostly jewish) were removed from central europe in the ten months before wwii started, and given refuge in the uk. it was touching, but sad at the same time. their lives were saved, but most of them were orphans by the end of the war. reading their stories about being taken from their homes at a young age was just gut wrenching.
in summary, my semester was about death and suffering. world wars, genocides, famines, hitler, stalin, gulags . . . over a hundred million deaths, easily. how do you even comprehend a hundred million deaths? you can't. on top of that, my personal projects focused on the ways that children suffer as a consequence of adult's decisions.
i cried. a lot.
it's disgusting to think of the things we do in the service of ego and the gaining of power; and the things we allow because of fear.
half-way through the semester we read a book called holocaust by bullets by father patrick desbois. it is a series of interviews and stories about the execution of jews in the ukraine during wwii. they were not put in camps, they were marched into fields and shot, millions of them, while their friends and neighbors looked on, often participated, and raised not a word in protest. clearly, the people being interviewed are the witnesses: the people who watched, who did not protest. it is a hard, devastating, maddening read. but there are a few passages about a third of the way through the book that changed the way i was experiencing and processing all of what i was studying during the semester:
"accepting awareness of what happened . . . . is to help new generations become resistant to genocide mechanisms which could be set in motion, again, anywhere in the world. why did i continue . . . i did it because genocides are multiplying and reproducing themselves."
"i am convinced that there is only one human race - a human race that shoots two-year-old children. for better or for worse i belong to that human race and this allows me to acknowledge that an ideology can deceive minds to the point of annihilating all ethical reflexes and all recognition of the human in the other. it happened in 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944, in the very heart of europe, one of the oldest civilizations in the world that had been shaped by centuries of Christian religious thinking and by the enlightenment - yet human beings had stopped recognizing their own fellows! human beings had not seen that by killing others, they were killing themselves . . . i realized that believing in the human race is a serious responsibility, and a position that needs to be consciously created and constructed. it is not enough to affirm or declare the truth; one must really commit oneself to the endeavor of developing a deep conscious, because, clearly . . . a conscience is a fragile entity."
i think the main point my holocaust professor tried to get across through her lectures and the reading assignments was that nazi's were not the only perpetrators of the holocaust. it was a lot of ordinary people. a lot. but what does that mean?
"us and them" mentality is dangerous. in talking about holocaust perpetrators, it took all of about three seconds for someone in my class to say "i would never do that. those guys were evil." when i suggested that one of the main points in the two books we read (one of them titled ordinary men) was how it was ordinary people who participated in the holocaust, not just nazis, the same girl who said "i would never" said, "no, i don't think that was a point." and i was so astounded and sad that i couldn't even respond. because this is the heart of so many problems. she couldn't accept the perpetrators as a group she might identify with, she could only accept them as an other entity: "evil." us and them. by distancing ourselves, by making someone an "other," we restrict ourselves from really understanding and learning.
the members of the nazi party were human. the non-nazi participators were human. the non-participators but non-objectors were human. the objectors were human. the jews were human. i am human. only by accepting the fact that i am capable of being part of any one of these groups, can i really start to develop the conscience necessary to live with integrity in the face of opposition. armed with that outlook, i can read about horrors and not just be depressed by them, but be armed by them. i gain in understanding and empathy. i can identify potentially dangerous tendencies in myself and guard against them.
i can be a better human.