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June/July 2002
Special Section: Animals and the Holocaust
Reviews of Eternal Treblinka

Book Review by Roberta Kalechofsky, Ph.D.


No one can predict the future of an image or symbol, or coterie of images and symbols. The cross was a Jewish symbol for Jews in the first century. In that desperate century, far more Jews, including women and children, were crucified than Christians. Elsewhere, more Gauls were crucified than Christians. Behind the crucifixion of Jesus is the crucifixion of countless unremembered others, but the cross became a symbol for Christianity, not for these others. When a culture loses control over the symbols of its history, it loses part of its history, so Jews have a right to be concerned about the uses of Holocaust imagery and symbolism, and comparisons with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, Holocaust imagery has permeated world culture, and people everywhere use it to mean something unprecedentedly sinister in the nature of modern brutality, something new in the uses of sadism and power.

Christianity is aware of the power of the Holocaust as a symbol of modern suffering and has attempted to “Christianize” it by putting crosses in some concentration camp cemeteries where the names on many tombstones reveal that those buried there are Jewish; Carmelite nuns attempted to establish a convent in Auschwitz and were prohibited only by protests from Jews. Walk the length of the railroad tracks in Auschwitz—it ends in an overshadowing cross; in Theresienstadt there is no record of Jewish prisoners—only political prisoners.

Of course Christians have a right to mourn those who died in the concentration camps—an enormous number of whom were also killed; but Jews rightly fear a subterranean effort to dejudaize the Holocaust.

Charles Patterson has assumed the burden of this modern history with eyes—and heart—wide open, and with a professional background which equips him to do this, for he has published numerous scholarly works about the Holocaust. His professional life has been dedicated to the problems of injustice and suffering. Eternal Treblinka is an intensification of his interests in human and animal suffering.

A singular virtue of Eternal Treblinka is that Patterson rescues Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works from pallid explications and reminds us how the consciousness of animal suffering suffused his writings. Singer added an eleventh commandment to the decalogue. “Do not kill or exploit the animal. Don’t eat its flesh, don’t flail its hide, don’t force it to do things against its nature.” In Patterson’s review of Singer’s books, we hear his impassioned cry against human cruelty towards animals. “When you slaughter a creature, you slaughter God.”

The book will overwhelm readers with its catalogue of animal pain, and should be read for this reason alone, whether Patterson’s argument, based on a quotation from Theodor Adorno, that “the road to Auschwitz led from the slaughterhouse,” infuriates or not. Many who argue that it is impertinent to compare animal suffering to human suffering have never read a description of a slaughterhouse or an animal research laboratory other than versions put out by the meat and animal research industries, and many people practice “willful ignorance.” Dr. Robert Mendelsohn called those who refuse to confront the agony of the research animal “the good German.” Surely they are not entitled to protest Patterson’s book until they familiarize themselves with the panoply of modern animal suffering, until the details of it sink into their souls and shape their waking moments and their understanding of the modern world in the same way that the Holocaust and the killing fields of the globe do.

The roots of the Holocaust go back much further than the slaughterhouse (Adorno was only partly right), but nevertheless Holocaust imagery embraces slaughterhouse imagery in their modern versions of efficient death.

By an ironic stroke of history it was Henry Ford, the American arch anti-Semite who inspired Hitler, who also grasped the meaning of modernity in the industrial efficiency of the slaughterhouse, and based his idea of the assembly line of automobiles on the assembly line of death in the Chicago stockyards which represented at the time the “greatest aggregation of labor and capital ever gathered in one place.” Ford’s first view of terrified animals being led to efficient slaughter inspired his idea of how to build cars. What, after all, in the industrial imagination, is the difference between a car and an animal? Today more animals are killed in a single day than in a whole year of Ford’s nefarious vision. It seems like historic destiny that both the car and animal agriculture have been cited by the Union for Concerned Scientists as the two most egregious destroyers of the environment. The West’s capacity for meat consumption seems limitless, and as one devours meat, meat devours our environment, water and energy supplies.

Patterson tells this story well, as he reiterates the development of the early 20th century ideas of eugenics, sterilization and racism that led to Hitler. Some of these histories have been told elsewhere, yet he still brings forth surprising details and linkages. The centerpiece of animal husbandry is breeding, and knowledge of animal breeding influenced the eugenics movement and the idea of human breeding, establishing a relationship between speciesism and racism. Unquestionably, they influence each other, but did one cause the other? Marjorie Spiegel examined this relationship in her small, potent book, The Dreaded Comparison, Human and Animal Slavery (1988). Her title is well chosen, for it speaks to the problem humans have with comparing animal suffering with human suffering, but the fact is that whether human suffering has more meaning than animal suffering (to whom?), the modes of inflicting suffering remain similar, and these modes are adapted from the animal world to the human world. A cattle car is a cattle car is a cattle car. Many animals are transported in equally horrific conditions as humans were, devoid of sufficient air and water, forced to defecate on each other and stand in pools of urine and feces.

In Eternal Treblinka, metaphysics and theology are sidelines; Patterson’s main argument is the genealogical and moral relationship between speciesism and racism: as we do to the animals so we will eventually do to humans. Ancient texts, including Genesis, substantiate the point. When God gives Noah permission to eat animals, the gift is at the cost of knowing war; other ancient civilizations regularly trained their warriors to kill humans by sending them out to hunt animals.

Patterson notes that the uses of animal and human breeding predate the Nazis’ uses: Sumer, one of the earliest and most powerful of the ancient Mesoptamian city-states, managed its slaves the same way it managed its livestock. The Sumerians castrated the males and put them to work, like domesticated animals, and they put the females in work and breeding camps. The Sumerian word for castrated slave boys—amar-kud—is the same word the Sumerians used for young castrated donkeys, horses and oxen.
The Nazis did not invent the idea of breeding camps any more than they invented cruelty, but aided by industrialization and scientific ideas, they accelerated its efficiency, for science does not eliminate our atavistic inclinations, but gives them more devastating avenues of expression.

Patterson has collected an encyclopedia of information about cruelty towards animals and humans which, in the book’s historic sweep, reminds us how racist Europe and the U.S. were at the beginning of the 20th century, how ideas of racism aided the conquest of places like Africa, how racism rested on ideas of progress and reform, how the Black man was regarded as an animal, how there were debates about his evolutionary place, about whether he belonged to the human race at all; about the divisions between humans and animals; about whether orangutans shared a place with the human species; about the fact that the tantalizing dividing line between animal and human is not as coherent as we like to think, and that therefore a comparison between racism and speciesism as forms of illicit prejudices that have separate but often comparable histories, can be made. Patterson’s research is ample, and his footnotes are exhaustive, rewarding the insistent reader.

But does the research sustain his various arguments? Patterson exposes the lie that the Nazis loved animals and that Hitler was a vegetarian. Within the theme of his book, it is not vegetarians who are like Hitler, it is carnivores who are like Nazis, which may press the issue too far, as does his (and others’) implicit argument that Jews have a special responsibility to confront evil. This idea is the third rail of Jewish history. The problem with the argument of “greater Jewish moral responsibility” is that it quickly leans on the notion of greater Jewish guilt or complicity. Nevertheless, this is a book that Jews especially should read, not because of Patterson’s central tenet, but because it will allow us to take the measure of how far removed we are from one of Judaism’s central values—the concern for animal suffering.

Early Jewish writing is replete with discussion of the animal’s place in the divine economy and of human responsibility for animal welfare. Yet in Judaism, as in the other major religions, there is barely any contemporary discussion of the animal’s place in the world. With the advent of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and urban life, we entirely abandoned the fate of the animal to butchers, hunters, and researchers. Who today writes with the prophet, Joel, “Fear not, beasts of the field, for the pastures in the wilderness are clothed with grass,” and how long must the prophets cry in the wilderness?

Roberta Kalechofsky
, Ph.D., founded Micah Publications, the source for Jewish vegetarian and animal rights books, and the publishing arm of Jews for Animal Rights. She is the author of Vegetarian Judaism: A Guide for Everyone, and several works of fiction. For information, visit


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