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

Confronting the Frozen Sea Within: Book Review by Jack Rosenberger


After Charles Patterson wrote the manuscript of Eternal Treblinka, he was confronted by an unwelcome discovery: no one, it seemed, wanted to publish his book. Publisher after publisher complained that Eternal Treblinka was “too strong.”

In the preface of Eternal Treblinka, Patterson reveals that while he struggled to find a publisher, he found solace in this passage from Franz Kafka: “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So it can make us happy? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all...A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

It is understandable why many publishers shied away from Eternal Treblinka. The book is a straightforward, unblinking discussion of the parallels, direct and indirect, between the treatment of animals during the history of humankind and the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. In short, Eternal Treblinka argues that if we lived in an ethically vegetarian world, the Holocaust might never have happened.

For carnivores, Eternal Treblinka is an uncomfortable read. Early on, Patterson puts the human species in a biological and historical perspective that many humans prefer to ignore.

He notes, for example, that anthropologists Roger Lewin and Richard Leakey, in their book Origins, ask the reader to think of the history of the earth as a 1,000-page book. “If each page covers four and a half million years, it would take 750 pages just to reach the beginnings of life in the sea,” writes Patterson. “Hominids would not appear until three pages from the end of the book, and the first use of stone tools would show up halfway down the final page. The story of homo sapiens would be told in the very last line of the book, with everything from cave paintings and the pyramids to the Holocaust and computer age jammed into the final word.”
Likewise, Patterson deftly chops down the notion cherished by many humans that they are not animals but instead are God’s finest creation and blessed with immortality. He quotes authorities like Edward O. Wilson who has opined, “It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough” as the planet’s dominant species.

One of the most controversial ideas in Eternal Treblinka is that the domestication (read, domination) of animals for agriculture is largely responsible for human slavery. Feminist Elizabeth Fisher, notes Patterson, has maintained “that it was the vertical, hierarchical positioning of human master over animal slave that intensified human cruelty and laid the foundation for human slavery. The violation of animals expedited the violation of human beings.”

Similarly, Patterson quotes Karl Jacoby who argues that it seems “more than coincidental that the region that yields the first evidence of agriculture, the Middle East, is the same one that yields the first evidence of slavery.” In the ancient Near East, writes Jacoby, slavery was “little more than the extension of domestication to humans.” To drive the point home, Patterson cites numerous examples of how practices used to control and dominate animal slaves, such as branding and castration, chaining and whipping, even ear cropping, were used to control human slaves.

As Charles Darwin put it: “Animals who we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equals.”

Among the book’s treasures are its portraits of Jewish and German Holocaust-connected animal advocates, such as Christa Blanke, a German Lutheran pastor who founded Animals’ Angels, which specializes in combating livestock transport in Europe, and the anonymous son of a former Auschwitz doctor who says in an interview: “There are two kinds of people: meat eaters and plant eaters. The meat eaters are the dangerous ones.”

Lastly, congratulations to Martin Rowe and Lantern Books for publishing Eternal Treblinka. Despite its unwelcome message, we are blessed to have the book.


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