I will always remember the moment I first saw it.

It was early 1988 and Ms Ancient Dan, our 1 year old daughter Sarah, and I were just starting a half-year sojourn in Israel for me to finish my dissertation. In the far south Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, near our apartment, we entered a bakery in the market area to buy challah for the sabbath. The proprietor was a slender older man with a kind demeanor. When he reached across the counter to present our bread, his sleeve pulled back and there it was—the six-digit number tattooed on his wrinkled left forearm.

Instantly I knew this man had experienced—and survived—the horrors of Auschwitz (only the three Nazi camps at Auschwitz tattooed serial numbers on inmates).[1] I suspect my realization was accompanied by a slight physical reaction, because when I looked up his subtle expression let me know he knew that I knew.

We had already established that he only spoke French and Hebrew and that my Hebrew was sufficient for ordering bread but incapable of meaningful dialogue in such a situation. So we left it there. Our only interactions through the Winter and Spring months consisting of pleasantries, his playful interchanges with Sarah, and my weekly purchases.

It was not unusual to see Auschwitz tattoos in Jerusalem in those days, but this man was unique to me. His always seemingly joyful demeanor, his friendly interactions with Sarah, and his apparent acceptance of us as obvious goyim seemed such a contrast to his own experiences at the hands of others that regarded him as different. He remained a very personal aspect of my continuing questions about human nature and how mere social, religious, and ethnic differences can result in something so unfathomable as the Holocaust—and how people should react to it.

The main gate at Dachau, the prototype Nazi concentration camp with the “motto” Arbeit Macht Frei (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

Eleven years later, having attained tenure and full professor rank at William Carey College, those same enduring questions drove me to conclude that a putative Christian institution of higher education should at least have a class in which they could be explored. It was somewhat out of my academic areas, but I resolved to study and research the topic. By the summer of 2000, my family joined me in Israel for the end of an excavation season before we all set off for Germany and Poland to visit concentration camps, death camps, and other Holocaust related sites[2] (all the pictures in this short post are from that trip).

The main gate at Auschwitz I, the concentration camp side of the Auschwitz complex; it is well-preserved, somber, and depressingly educational (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

By Spring of 2001, I had developed a course titled simply “The Holocaust” and gotten curriculum approval. The first class was offered at WCC in the Fall of that year, cross-listed for religion and history credit. The course included an extensive history of anti-Semitism, the political buildup to Nazi domination of Germany, the events of the Holocaust itself, and post-WWII reactions to it.[3] An optional (sadly, only for the students that could afford it) trip to Washington, D.C. was a highlight—with an extended visit to the excellent (but brutal) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, made all the more thought-provoking by the many nearby monuments to liberty in the nation’s capital. I choose a textbook uniquely co-authored by Jewish and Christian scholars. Its title, Approaches to Auschwitz,[4] signals the book’s goal of exploring how theological predispositions and historical events created a twisted logic that brought humanity along the road to the incomprehensible events best represented by that most famous of Nazi camps.

Ovens in the crematorium/gas chamber building at Auschwitz I (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

Early in the first term, on 11 September, we were scheduled to watch a documentary so the TV cart was in the room when we heard of a plane crash into the World Trade Center. We quickly rigged an antenna and got a live feed moments after the second plane impact and watched in stunned horror as the worst terror attack played out live in a class devoted to the study of evil acts by humans against other humans. The trip to D.C. was hastily rescheduled and we flew in a month after 9/11. Washington was surreal, with makeshift concrete barriers surrounding most government buildings, palpable fear, and hair-trigger nerves. We managed to hike from our hotel to a spot where we could view the gaping hole in the west side of the Pentagon, we endured a chemical attack scare at the Lincoln Memorial that triggered a massive response, and while we were in D.C., the Anthrax Attacks ramped up.[5] I could not have created a more effective lab assignment to study fear, terror, the feeling of a loss of security.[6]

Rail entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the death camp side of the Auschwitz complex; where hundreds of thousands arrived by train to be gassed and burned (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

The second iteration of the course began just before the impact of Hurricane Katrina which devastated Hattiesburg (where WCC is located). That term had a particular interest in the problem of [evil and] suffering. And so, every odd-numbered year through 2015 The Holocaust course, often with current events contributing heavily, prompted learning and dialogue about some of the most intractable aspects of human experience. Like the book of Job, the class did not fully answer those questions; but I think it provided a meaningful learning experience on some the most important issues. The class was difficult, academically and emotionally, to take . . . and to teach.[7] Nevertheless, holding onto the hope that students were positively affected, I consider that course to be my most important academic work.[8]

Sarah inspects the “ramp” at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where trains unloaded and people were sorted; those chosen to work into the camp ahead, everyone else down the path to the right toward the gas chambers (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

This post was prompted by a confluence of events. The first was an invitation to speak about the Holocaust to the sixth grade classes at Dixie Attendance Center earlier in the week. I did so and found the students remarkably well-informed, attentive, and curious with good intelligent questions. I am heartened by the efforts of the sixth-grade teachers there! The second is my having found and scanned my slides from the Summer 2000 journey (for the aforementioned talk) and the deep memories prompted by that. It also happens that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is 27 January 2023—tomorrow as I write this. Having now shared a story and gone down memory lane about my course, I will attempt a minimally hopeful conclusion.

Gas chamber and crematorium complex at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, destroyed by the SS in an attempt to hide what went on there as Russian forces closed in on the site (© Daniel C Browning Jr, 2000)

Some unrelated recent reading focused on the role of “schismogenesis,” a phenomenon resulting from a human tendency to define oneself as against certain others. It explains how groups with ideological differences escalate their opposition until meaningful dialogue becomes impossible (very much like the current political climate in the USA). Originally coined to explain dynamics within societies, a recent study has applied schismogenesis to relations between societies as an explanation for extreme differences.[9] In other words, we have an innate desire to be “not” those perceived as rivals. This would seem to explain the common use of derisive epithets for other groups, which often include physical or social differences unique to them.[10] My unrefined impression is that schismogenesis can provide a very partial answer to the question of why so many of one group would participate (actively or passively) in the attempted extermination of another. In the present case it would seem to provide the mechanism needed in a view that would synthesize the competing theories of the Holocaust: intentionalism versus functionalism.[11]

More importantly, I think is an avenue that may hold some promise in the effort to insure a Holocaust never occurs again. The thing about schismogenesis is that it is an easy path to take. Politicians, to be sure, know that it is easier to rile a group up against a scapegoat than it is to get them to face their own shortcomings. For individuals it is far easier to define oneself as against those we perceive as “not us” than it is to—as an inscription at Delphi in Greece advised—“know thyself.” I suggest that teaching about the Holocaust (on International Holocaust Remembrance Day or any other time) should include, in addition to awareness about the events, some means of forcing self-examination. Then, perhaps, persons can take an off-ramp from the “Approach to Auschwitz” and find a path away from hate.  

Thanks for looking! cropped-adicon_square.png

[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Tattoos and Numbers: The System of Identifying Prisoners at Auschwitz.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/tattoos-and-numbers-the-system-of-identifying-prisoners-at-auschwitz. Accessed on 26 January 2023.

[2] For those wondering, we also did many more “traditional” travel/vacation things on the journey, which is fondly remembered in my family!

[3] For the exceptionally curious, a syllabus for the course is here:

[4] Richard A. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy, Rev. Ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). ISBN: 0-664-223-53-2.

[5] A noteworthy memory of the latter was watching a news report explaining how Anthrax could be released in the Washington metro system for maximum spread throughout the tunnels; using the station connected to our hotel as the demonstrator!

[6] And, perhaps it should be added, the condemnation of an entire people group and religion based on the actions of a few.

[7] By the fourth or fifth iteration, I required antidepressants to make it through the term.

[8] Sadly, after my inexplicable dismissal from William Carey in 2016, all courses uniquely developed by me were cut from the catalog, including The Holocaust.

[9] The term was introduced in Gregory Bateson, “Culture Contact and Schismogenesis,” Man 35 (Dec 1935): 178-183, and used in a later study by the same author. Expansion of the concept to explain differences between societies occurs in David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 56–58.

[10] Ironically for this context, the first example that comes to my mind is the consistent description of the early Iron Age enemies of Israel as “uncircumcised Philistines” in the biblical text. There are, of course, many others but this is not the place to trot out slurs.

[11] For a brief overview of this debate, the Wikipedia page is a good start:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functionalism%E2%80%93intentionalism_debate (as inspected on 26 January 2023).

2 thoughts on “A Path away from Hatred?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s