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 Auschwitzit
ends in an overshadowing cross; in Theresienstadt there is no record
of Jewish prisonersonly political prisoners.
Of course Christians have a right to mourn those who died in the concentration
campsan 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
eyesand heartwide 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 Singers 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. Dont eat its flesh, dont flail its hide,
dont force it to do things against its nature. In Pattersons
review of Singers books, we hear his impassioned cry against human
cruelty towards animals. When you slaughter a creature, you slaughter
The book will overwhelm readers with its catalogue of animal pain,
and should be read for this reason alone, whether Pattersons 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 Pattersons 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. Fords
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 Fords 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 Wests
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; Pattersons
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
Noah permission to eat animals, the gift is at the cost of knowing
war; other ancient civilizations regularly trained their warriors to
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 boysamar-kudis
the same word the Sumerians used for young castrated donkeys, horses
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 books 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. Pattersons 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
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 Pattersons central tenet, but because
it will allow us to take the measure of how far removed we are from
one of Judaisms central valuesthe concern for animal suffering.
Early Jewish writing is replete with discussion of the animals
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 animals 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,