On the outside looking in

By Laura Smith

Early on, the FASPE faculty urged us not to have expectations about our reactions to Auschwitz—and despite all their urging, we often had expectations. In some ways, my expectations were met: I expected to feel and mostly did feel incomprehension and blankness. I think this is reasonable. I don’t think anyone can expect us to stand next to a decimated gas chamber at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, smell freshly cut grass, hear singing birds and imagine or understand what happened there.

In other ways, my expectations were confounded. It was not the gory images of mass graves and starving survivors or the display filled with human hair that I found most haunting. More than those things, the images, sights and sounds of vitality are likely what will stick with me: the images of a Jewish family picnicking, the sound of music in Block 27, the Shoah exhibition prepared by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Block 27 Yad Vashem

Entrance to the Shoah exhibition in Block 27 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. (Niv Moshe Ben David and Pawel Sawicki/Yad Vashem)

If we have expectations about what we will feel, we also have expectations about what that feeling will do. Perhaps it is enough just to feel and remember, but FASPE is premised on the idea that we can examine contemporary ethical issues through the context of the Holocaust. I have to admit that there were days when I felt the more facts I learned about the Holocaust’s context, the less I understood. I do, however, feel that this experience has given me new insight into systems that survive by creating the impression of their invincibility. Nazis, in ways large and small, created the impression that their way was the only way, there were no alternatives. This made me wonder what systems use a similar logic to persuade people to collaborate with them even when it goes against their better judgment.

It is not impossible to imagine interacting with the environment differently than we currently do. Or to reconsider capitalism. Business interests play a crucial role in American society: medicine and health, education, the way we use or don’t use the environment and, often, they determine who holds public office. In many conversations with fellows, we’ve debated changing the system from the inside versus demanding a new framework. I don’t pretend to have any answers, but my experience at FASPE has impressed on me the importance of constantly questioning even the most established institutions. I don’t feel confident that we can stand inside these institutions while employing the necessary scrutiny. Perhaps this is why I’ve chosen to be a journalist: I prefer to be on the outside looking in.

One day during the fellowship, we had an opportunity to watch the other professions do what they do. The lawyers lawyered, the business people practiced business in a role-playing scenario organized by the faculty. It was a rare opportunity to see how the other professions make decisions. As I watched each group arrive at their conclusions, I found many things to admire. Excellent strategic thinking was on display. But it also reminded me of the journalist’s privileged position: we have allegiance to no single person or entity. I think in many ways lawyers and business people will be put to a harder test. When confronted with an ethical conundrum that contradicts the tenets of their profession, whether it is representing a client or growing their business, there may be a time when they will be forced to choose. Many of them may have to make decisions I would never want to make.

 

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