Inhuman "Humanities"

May 9, 2009

7 min read


The world's most cultured people were known for the most inhuman behavior.

On Yom HaShoah, Israel's national memorial day for the Holocaust, the media is filled with personal accounts of the survivors of that national catastrophe. The enormity of suffering which they depict makes a listener aware of how inadequate human emotions are in supplying a fitting response.

On an intellectual level, these stories inevitably evoke an important question. Since these atrocities could not have been perpetrated without the active or passive participation of millions of Germans, how could a nation which was then the leader of Western culture -- in art, music, culture and science -- sink to such a level of inhumanity? The explanation usually given is that in the pre-war years the economic and social pressures were so overpowering for Germans, that they could not pay attention to their culture.

A survivor's story casts a new perspective on this issue. In an article in Israeli newspaper, Ha-Aretz, a doctoral student relates the story of her mother who survived Auschwitz because of the latter's musical talents. The infamous Dr. Mengele, medical director of that camp, is well-known for the medical experiments which he performed on concentration camp inmates. These included such "scientific" inquiries as the length of time a man can survive being submerged in freezing water, which level of torture causes unconsciousness; how small children react to physical mutilations, and the like.

Dr. Mengele, who tortured Auschwitz inmates, was a great devotee of classical music.

What is less known about Mengele, at least until this article was published, is that he was a devotee of classical music. In fact, in the same building known as "the experimentation block" there was a "music room" in which he would indulge his talent of violin playing. When the above-mentioned woman arrived at Auschwitz, Mengele noted in her record that she was a pianist and asked her to perform for him. He was so impressed with her talents that he decided to give her special treatment, a privilege that ultimately spared her life.

In addition to the usual slave labor to which all inmates were subjected, this woman had to perform periodically for Mengele, often while the latter would accompany her on his violin. In particular, the article relates, he loved to have her play Shubert's "Serenade" and the religious hymn, "Ave Maria."

So important was music to Mengele, that he trained one of his dogs to be sensitive to every nuance of his favorite compositions. If ever the woman would play a note inaccurately, the dog would pounce on her and viciously bite her. This happened many times when she was forced to perform before Mengele when she was unable to concentrate fully on her playing, such as after she had contracted tuberculosis.

She had at least ten scars all over her body resulting from dog-bites incurred by lapses in her performance.


This story, repeated in different forms throughout the Holocaust, makes clear that it is not enough to explain that Germans turned into barbarians because "they could not pay attention to their culture." In the case of Mengele, we see that even at the very moment that he was engrossed in experiencing the beauty of music, his cultural pursuit did not restrain him from acting like a beast. On the contrary, his esthetic sensitivity -- which made him demand that his enjoyment of music be perfect -- became the reason for his inhuman behavior.

In truth, the question how could cultured Germany or an individual like Mengele commit atrocities is really a non-question. It is based on a false premise, the theory which underlies a liberal arts education. Fine arts, literature and music, this theory has it, refine those who are sensitive to them. They elevate us into "humans," as opposed to animals (hence the term, "the humanities," for the components of this education), and make us sensitive to the finer aspects of life, such as truth and kindness.

The reasoning behind the theory is that since only humans are sensitive to the arts, the more one develops one's artistic sensitivity, the more human -- and less animalistic -- one becomes. The German experience shows, however, that this theory is only so much rubbish.

Art, music and literature, or "culture" have absolutely no bearing on human behavior.

Art, music and literature, or "culture" have absolutely no bearing on human behavior. What elevates a person into becoming a "human" is not the quality of sensation which he experiences but his definition of his humanness. Someone who sees himself as an organism designed for nothing more than survival and stimulation by pleasures essentially defines himself as a two-legged animal; like all animals, he is an organism motivated by instincts for survival and pleasure. The fact that a two-legged animal is able to be sensitive to the sophisticated pleasures of esthetics, does not convert him into a higher being, but merely makes him a more sophisticated animal.


A human is different from a beast if he defines himself as a being created for goals to humanity. Man is noble if he is able to devote himself to interests other than his personal gratification. If he can devote himself to selfless pursuits -- caring for others or the service of God -- he has become ly human, capable of striving towards goals which animals are incapable of achieving.

Beasts are willing to derive their pleasure at the expense of others, even if it means killing them and devouring their flesh. Mengele was, in this sense, a beast. Music, for him, was merely another pleasurable experience, like that derived from power, lust and money. There is nothing unusual in the fact that he believed that this esthetic pleasure was to be pursued even at the expense of others' suffering.

Not only the Germans, but any people that define themselves as two-legged animals, designed to survive and derive pleasurable experiences, have the potential to develop into perpetrators of atrocities. Only a nation which devotes itself to noble ideals can be assured that it will never stoop to Germany's moral level.


Two thousand years ago, the Sages taught us a story which was meant to define the difference between the Roman and the Jewish concept of beauty. A Roman emperor decided to put Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, to death because he taught Torah to Jews. As the rabbi was being led to his execution, the emperor's daughter was so taken by his beauty that she asked her father to spare the sage's life. When her father refused, she begged him to at least permit her to have Rabbi Yishmael skinned alive so that she could preserve his skin while it was still fresh and then be able to enjoy its beauty. Her wish was granted.

The emperor's daughter had Rabbi Yishmael skinned alive so she could preserve his beautiful skin.

The Sages believed that human beauty is a function of human nobility and can be sensed in the face of someone whose life is so devoted to the service of the Divine that he is willing to give up his life for this. To the Roman emperor's daughter, the source of beauty was immaterial. What was important was that beauty gives pleasure and was an experience meant to be enjoyed.

The correspondence between this story and that of Mengele is remarkable. To the Romans, Rabbi Yishmael's suffering was insignificant compared to the esthetic experience which his freshly peeled skin would provide the emperor's daughter. In Germany two thousand years later, the pianist's suffering was insignificant compared to the esthetic pleasure which a perfect performance would offer the concentration camp director. To both the emperor and Mengele, personal enjoyment was the ultimate value by which all others must be measured, and therefore all other so-called human considerations must fall by the wayside.

These stories put into stark relief the age-old struggle between Jews and the nations of the world regarding the definition of human life. If man was meant to live for his self- edification, or is he meant to live for ideals more important than himself. Human civilization is "human" and not animal, to the extent that it has assimilated the Jewish definition of humanity. From the time since mankind has turned away from the Jewish definition of life, the world has sunk deeper and deeper into barbarity.


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