What effect those classes might have had on others, I do not know; what effect on me, can scarcely tell. Most notably, it bred in my heart an undying fascination with the Jewish people, and a deep reserve of sorrow for the sufferings that they have undergone. As I studied the founding of the state of Israel for a class project at the end of the spring trimester, I was struck by the absurdity and injustice of the fact that the Jews had been maligned, mistreated, and murdered unceasingly in nearly every place they dwelt—ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, northern Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Russia—by Romans, Christians, Europeans ancient, medieval, and modern, the present-day Arabs (who had launched a war to exterminate them on the day of Israel’s founding, but with no more success than the others)—a line of persecution stretching back almost 4,000 years to the time of their fathers. I was perplexed by their ability, not only to survive, but even to thrive in such conditions, hated, tormented, bereft of a home, and made to wander to and fro in the earth. “Athens, Sparta, and Rome have perished,” wrote the French philosopher Rousseau, “and their people have vanished from the earth; Zion, though destroyed, has not lost her children. They mingle with all nations but are not lost among them.” Yet now, after 2,000 years, they were living once again in their ancestral homeland, had revived, and were speaking, their ancestral language (Hebrew), and were practicing their ancestral religion, the very scriptures of which had promised their return a full five hundred years before the Romans even drove them out! What was the parting of the sea compared to this?
Any overarching philosophy of history is incomplete which fails sufficiently to answer these two questions: Why are the Jews so hated? and, how do they survive? Mr. Blankenship may have felt forbidden by the code of his profession to assert his own opinions, but he vaguely gestured us from time to time in the direction of an answer. He told us the story of how Frederick the Great, the emperor of Prussia (and perhaps one of his favorite historical figures), challenged his physician to cite one clear, definitive, incontrovertible proof of the existence of God. “The Jews,” his physician replied, with no hesitation. “The Jews.”
And I, for my own part, averred; yet even my faith in this hypothesis was shaken when we reached our study of the Nazi holocaust. The danger inherent in a religious understanding of the continued existence of the Jewish race is that it threatens to ignore, or lightly brush over, the question of why they are hated—and, more than this, what madness must dwell in the minds of their adversaries that makes them so determined, so efficient, and so inconceivably cruel that, given the choice between merely killing them outright (say with guns or gas), or leading them the long way to slaughter through tortures and torments, so many have sacrificed simplicity for sadism. It is a form of evil so targeted, so pervasive, and so malicious as to seem supernatural. Many millions of men have been slain throughout history; but few have been slain like the Jews. We learned of a young Jewish couple that was murdered attempting to escape Auschwitz in the uniforms of SS officers; the man was hung, yet the woman, sentenced to be burned alive in the crematoria, slit her own wrists on the way to execution rather than submit to such a grisly fate. We analyzed the fate of the Jews of Jedawbne, Poland, seven hundred of whom were hunted down and executed by their neighbors before the Germans arrived. The Jews were rounded up and forced into a barn; the barn was burned while, just outside the door, the townsfolk made merry on instruments to drown the accusation of their screams. Jews were experimentally frozen, blinded, injected with all manner of diseases, whipped, starved, and amputated without the benefit of anesthesia. Children were murdered by the thousands. And, as it became increasingly evident that Germany would lose the war, the administrators in charge of the death camps redoubled their efforts—in Auschwitz on a single day in the summer of 1944, 9,000 were slain, and the graves eventually proved too small to hold the growing piles of the dead.
For a single supreme, interminable moment, it appeared that Satan was triumphant. Never had the world’s Jewish population been in greater danger. If the war had gone the other way, if Britain had been lost, or Hitler not repulsed in northern Africa and on the eastern steppes, it would have been their end. Over time, it came to seem that this had been the point, and all the military carnage but a sideshow to distract the major powers from his true intent—the systemic annihilation of every living Jew. We learned that the Grand Mufti of Palestine had conspired with the Nazis for the elimination of all those living in the Middle east and Northern Africa, and would undoubtedly have done so had the Deutches Reich prevailed there. “Arabs!” he declared in a radio broadcast on March 1, 1944, “rise as one and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them.”
Yet the menace of those days had been obscured by the glazing over of time. It is difficult to explain to a person wholly unacquainted with the subject the nature of the evil which once confronted, and at one point threatened to destroy, the human race; it is too shocking, too monstrous to believe—like something in a fairy-tale or myth. Carl Jung wrote that in the twentieth century, for the first time in history, evil became a tangibly-existing force, an individual, distinct entity—“darker than death or night” —whose titanic, tyrannical power and malignity satanic threatened the fundamentally-modern belief that progress was inevitable, and good would always triumph . “We have discovered that evil too is a progressive force,” wrote the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, “and that the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.” There had been evils aplenty in history, but few so starkly hellish, so infernal, as the evils of the century past. To put it more simply, we were living in the days of myth and miracle, and, for the most part, knew it not.
Then again, seen in another light, perhaps we had always been.
For, above all else, it was Mr. Blankenship’s contention—a contention that, in time, had become the shared conviction of the most devoted of his students—that history cannot be understood at all without some comprehension of its abnormality. Day by day, and hour by hour, he fought to combat the exhaustless, almost universally pervasive idea that history is nothing but a tedious and unbroken record of financial exchanges and meaningless, bloody disputes over bits of barren land. No, in Mr. Blankenship’s classes, history was grand, surreal, vivid, violent, and shocking—but the one thing it had never been, would never be, was dull. History for Mr. Blankenship was neither Marxist nor mundane. It was only this way of seeing that could begin to make sense of the inconceivable atrocities and evident miracles of history. We learned how, in an event later known as “the Defenestration of Prague,” two Catholic regents (and a “pleading secretary”) were thrown out a window in Bohemia, plummeting fifty feet and landing, soiled but otherwise unharmed, in a bed of manure. It was this event which inaugurated the Thirty Years’ War. We studied the improbable military career of Frederick the Great, who warred against the might of all Europe, won a long series of apparently providential victories in battle, though all the while heavily outnumbered and under-supplied, and whose capital was only spared humiliating desolation when, as the continental forces closed in on the city, his arch-rival, the empress of Russia, suddenly died, and her successor, Czar Peter III, immediately declared his undying allegiance to the Prussian emperor. Thus, against all reason, at the very moment of destruction, Frederick won the war.
Of these and other inexplicable, unfathomable turns is history composed.
Mr. Blankenship had a lecture on time that he liked to deliver whenever he discerned apathy gaining a foothold in the classroom. He stood up at the lectern in the center of the room and said the one word, “Now.” When the echo of the word had finished sounding in our ears, he noted that even before he had finished uttering the “ow” part of the word, the “n” had fled into the past.
There are two lessons to be gleaned from this. The first is that the past and present aren’t as separate as we sometimes like to think. The present is already seeping away into memory, but history is ongoing, and it happens all around us.
The second lesson is this: Given the limitless absurdities we’ve catalogued in history, and life’s near-infinite capacity to surprise us, the one thing we should never, ever do is to declare something too unbelievable to be true.