“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I first realized I didn’t agree with this saying when I spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at Kenyon College where I was teaching in 1988. “The Night of Broken Glass,” as it’s known in English, is often cited as the beginning of the Holocaust, so by that reckoning November 9, 1988 was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust. I was asked to speak as both a philosopher and a child of Holocaust survivors. The evening’s ceremony included a brief march in which people carried lit candles.
The symbolism of the candles was on my mind because I’ve also got my own, more personal associations with candles on that date. November 9, but in 1965, was the date of the East Coast blackout, where much of the northeast US went dark, including New York City where we lived. We had a lot of candles at home because November 9 was also my father’s birthday. Living in Poland then, he had turned 16 the day of Kristallnacht. Maybe one of these days I’ll write something more about my connections to November 9, because that date in 1989 was when the wall came down in Berlin, the city of my birth, the city where my parents met and married.
As we all looked at the lit candles in the dark during that college ceremony, I said that this saying presented a false choice. The Holocaust is a case where we need to do both, light the candles as well as curse the darkness. Illuminating the events by understanding them, as we were trying to do in our educational environment, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t nonetheless curse that darkness. Intellectual understanding doesn’t replace moral condemnation or emotional release.
Which brings me to the second saying with which I disagree. It’s best known in the French form in which Tolstoy used it in War and Peace: “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.” “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” Sorry, not as far as I’m concerned. The saying inhabits too mechanistic a universe. We can understand what drives a person to do something, but there’s always at least one moment of choice. Call it my existentialist side trumping my determinist side. I want to uphold the principal that what one person can do, another can understand. Otherwise, what are we doing in the university anyway; if we can’t in principle come to understand each other we may as well all just go home. “Nihil humani a me alienum puto,” wrote the young Karl Marx in answer to a question about his favorite maxim, quoting Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” But we still may – indeed, sometimes we must – deem actions unpardonable even if we understand them. Again, it’s the Holocaust that comes to my mind here.
Am I too quick to condemn and too slow to forgive, too unwilling to temper justice with mercy? Perhaps. But I think we rarely get the balance between the two exactly right, and I find I’d rather err on this side than the other.
I always have a valid passport. I keep it within easy access and I know just where it is, and I’ve made sure my kids have one too. You never know. It’s not that I’m paranoid – well, maybe it is, but that’s not how I think of it – it’s that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors. I used to think of my need to be exit ready as a fear of being trapped, but I’ve realized it’s got very little to do with what I think about the present or future. It’s about the past. It’s a link to my parents, a way of keeping their worldview alive in me. As bizarre as it may sound – at least to those who aren’t children of survivors, but I expect those who share my background will understand – not to have a valid passport feels to me like a betrayal of my parents, a failure to heed hard won lessons.
Actually, I should clarify that, when I speak of myself as a child of Holocaust survivors, the identity I really claim is that I’m a child of temporary Holocaust survivors. What I mean is that while my parents survived the war years, they both died younger than I think they would have had they not had to endure the hardships and traumas of those years. They survived, but only temporarily, my mother having died by age 49 and my father by 59.
My mother was German and my father was Polish, and I know that after the war they contemplated moving to Switzerland, but our citizenship status wouldn’t have been as firmly secure as that of native-born Swiss, and they weren’t about to accept any sort of second-class citizenship.
Here’s a story my father told me about how he got his US citizenship:
The procedure was that he appeared before a magistrate or judge of some sort and was asked basic civics questions, presumably by an immigration official. (I’ve got only my father’s version of this.) One question put to him was as follows: “You say you’re going to be a law-abiding citizen in the US, but in Europe the law required Jews to turn themselves in. You didn’t. So why should we believe you?”
You can imagine the time I’ve spent trying to puzzle out what could possibly bring someone to ask such a question. Perhaps my father’s English wasn’t good enough and he misheard the question. Maybe the interrogator thought he was lobbing my father an easy pitch, expecting some pat answer like “Oh, I know that would never happen here.” Or maybe the guy really was that much of a fool.
In any case, whatever was actually said or meant, that’s how my father heard the question. To his eternal credit, as I always say when I tell the story, my father turned to the judge and said: “Bring in someone else to ask me questions. I’m through talking to him.”
The judge reassured my father not to worry, he would get his citizenship.