Religion on the Level: #5
What is the Use of Hell? (Continued)
In my previous lecture in this series I quoted from what I consider to be
the greatest of the novels about the holocaust, The Last of the Just by
Andre Schwartz-Bart. I read you a passage in which Ernie Levy is in a box car on
his way to Auschwitz, shepherding a group of Jewish children. He has consoled
them with a lie that they are on their way to the peace and safety of the
Kingdom of Israel. When they reach Auschwitz, Ernie leads his little flock into
the gas chamber: 'Breathe deeply, my lambs, and quickly,' he says. Then we read
these unbearable words:
When the layers of gas covered everything, there
was silence in the dark sky of the room for perhaps
a minute, broken only by shrill, racking coughs and
the gasps of those too far gone in their agonies to
offer a devotion. And first as a stream, then a cascade,
then an irrepressible, majestic torrent, the poem which,
through the smoke of fires and above the funeral pyres
of history, the Jews - who for two thousand years
never bore arms and never had either missionary
empires or coloured slaves - the old love poem which
the Jews traced in letters of blood on the earth's hard
crust unfurled in the gas chamber, surrounded it,
dominated its dark, abysmal sneer: "shema israel. adonai elohenu adonai
eh'hoth �Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal One".
The voices died one by one along the unfinished poem;
the dying children had already dug their nails into Ernie's
thighs, and Goldas's embrace was already weaker,
her kisses were blurred, when suddenly she clung fiercely
to her beloved's neck and whispered hoarsely: "Then I'll
never see you again? Never again?"
Ernie managed to spit up the needle of fire jabbing at his
throat and, as the girl's body slumped against him, its eyes
wide in the opaque night, he shouted against her unconscious ear, "In a little
while, I swear it!" �And then he knew that he could do nothing more for
anyone in the world � With dying arms he embraced Golda's body in an already
unconscious gesture of loving protection, and they were found in this position
half-an-hour later by the team of
Sonderkommando responsible for burning the Jews in the crematory ovens.
And so it was for millions, who from
Luftmensch became Luft. I shall not translate. So this story will
not finish with some tomb to be visited in pious memory. For smoke that rises
from crematoria obeys physical laws like any other: the particles come
together and disperse according to the wind, which propels them. The only
pilgrimage, dear reader, would be to look sadly at a story sky now and then.
The novel ends:
At times, it is true, one's heart could break in sorrow.
But often too, preferably in the evening, I cannot help
thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still
alive, somewhere, I don't know where � Yesterday,
as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to
the spot, a drop of pity fell from above my face; but
there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky �
there was only a presence. 
I make no apology for that long quotation. It seems to me to encapsulate the
horror we are capable of inflicting on one another. More significantly it seems
to me to show that hell exists, not in some supernatural sphere, not in our
imagination, but in Christian history. Hell in largely a Christian invention,
and we built it on earth, in our time, as a crematory for the Jews.
Why have we hated them so much? We could trace the trajectory of that hatred
from the Gospel of John, through the pogroms of the Middle Ages, to the Final
Solution. Among other things, that trajectory demonstrates the demonic use to
which the Bible can be put: 'His blood be on us and on our children', as it has
been down the century, rivers of it. But there is something of the demonic here
as well, something beyond explanation, something right off the trajectory of
history. Why this hatred of the Jews?
I'll leave you with a thought from George Steiner who is also obsessed with
the question. Several places in his writings, and most recently in his little
volume of autobiography,
Errata, he wonders if humanity does not hate the Jewish people because it
bore the law to them and the pain of conscience. In Errata he suggests
that in Moses, Jesus and Marx the Jew has striven to confront human
consciousness with transcendent absoluteness.
The moral dictates which come through Moses are uncompromising and 'entail
the mutation of common man. We are to discipline the soul and flesh into
perfection. We are to outgrow our own shadow'. Steiner continues his paraphrase,
'Cease being what you are, what biology and circumstance have made you. Become,
at a fearful price of abnegation, what you could be'.
According to Steiner, 'This is the first of the three moments of transcendent
imposition on man out of Judaism'.
The second comes from Jesus. 'He requires of men and women an altruism, a
counter-instinctual, "unnatural" restraint towards all who do us injury and
offence'. Steiner continues, 'The profoundly natural impulse to avenge
injustice, oppression and derision do have their place in the house of Israel. A
refusal to forget injury or humiliation can warm the heart. Christ's
ordinance of total love, of self-offering to the assailant is, in any
strict sense, an enormity. The victim is to love his butcher. A monstrous
proposition. But one shedding fathomless light. How are we mortal men and women
to fulfill it?'
What Steiner calls 'the third knock on the door' comes from Karl Marx, who
secularises, makes 'of this world' the messianic logic of social justice, of
Edenic plenty for all, of peace on an undivided earth'. He goes on to talk of
Marx's rage against social inequality, against the sterile cruelty of wealth,
against unnecessary famine and misere.
He concludes, 'Three times Judaism has brought Western civilisation face to
face with the blackmail of the ideal. What graver affront?'  These
morally towering figures are uncomfortable for most of us to live with because
they challenge our compromises, our corruptions, our failure to struggle for the
ideal, the absolute.
They fill us with guilt and shame; and guilt and shame easily turn to
self-hatred; and, since self-hatred cannot live with itself, it goes in search
of a scapegoat. We kill the conscience of history.
11 March 1999
� Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be
in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author
 Richard Holloway, Seven to Flee, Seven to Follow, Mowbrays, 1986
 James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Penguin
 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, OUP, 1996
 Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, Nisbet, 1955
 Andre Schwartz-Bart, The Last of the Just, Penguin, 1960
 George Steiner, Errata, Phoenix, 1997