I really don’t like reading about the holocaust and dread watching films about it – documentary or otherwise. Even the testimonies of witnesses fill me with apprehension. Oversaturated with ‘never forget’, ‘never again’, and broad-stroke portraits of good, evil and in-between, we still witness other holocausts and forget that more recent generations have nothing to remember. We are too young. We try to know, but how do you tell the story so it matters?
To anyone who wonders just how the hell it all happened, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 is all you need. It reads like a novel, or the best historical fiction if you’re into that sort of thing, albeit one where you might wonder ‘who would make this stuff up?’ It is a moving yet unemotional history of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Germany that manages to be engaging, visual (you can see the film playing in your mind as you read), and never dull. Elon puts it all in a social & cultural context too often absent from other accounts. Oh, and it’s all true. This is a history book for people who hate history books.
On the occasion of Elon’s death last week, The New Yorker published an elegant essay by his friend Bernard Avishai. I recommend reading the whole essay, but there was one part that inspired me to write this post. Avishai provides a nuanced explanation of Elon’s outlook on the nature of human beings:
Amos could not get over how history went wrong because of the ways in which broken-hearted people act together and ricochet off one another, how qualities that we ordinarily like in people—creativity, loyalty, sincerity, steadfastness—combine to create disasters; how human desires, whose details only a compassionate observer can describe, explain everything, including how we routinely throw happiness away.
Is this love gone wrong or the state of Palestinian/Israeli relations? It could be either (he goes on to quote Elon from an essay on the latter). And that’s the genius of Elon and The Pity of It All. With this humanistic view, he pushes History onto our shoulders, small human shoulders that bear the consequences of wants and desires so poorly pursued. Our histories – individually and collectively – rely on our ability to mitigate the breaking of hearts. When we fail, all hell breaks loose.
While You Were Here centers on the friendship between my grandmother and Hans ‘Kino’ Frank, and by extension the relationships between religions, classes, and political parties in a southwestern German village. If it is true that our human desires can explain everything, then the desires of the people in this village may explain the course of events in a way that makes them more understandable, closer to ourselves, and that much harder to ignore.