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Review of Eternal Treblinka by Richard H. Schwartz

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Review of Eternal Treblinka by Richard H. Schwartz

Richard H. Schwartz, Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA)

When I first learned that Charles Patterson was going to write a book about "our treatment of animals and the Holocaust," I had some misgivings. I was aware that some animal rights advocates had made superficial, misleading comparisons between the treatment of animals on factory farms and the treatment of Jews and others in the Holocaust, and I knew that this had hurt the vegetarian/animal rights cause by giving people an excuse to avoid considering the many negative effects of animal-based diets. However, I was an early endorser of Patterson's project because I felt that we needed new, creative ways to alert people to the horrors of modern intensive livestock agriculture, and my knowledge of his character, sensitivity, and background convinced me that he would be an ideal person for this project.

Charles Patterson's first book -- Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond -- received much acclaim. Judaica Book News stated, "It deserves a place in every home, school and public library...excellent background reading in Jewish history and the history of western civilization." He is a Holocaust educator with a certificate from the Yad Vashem Institute for Holocaust Education in Jerusalem, who has reviewed books and films for 18 years for Martyrdom and Resistance, a publication of the International Society of Yad Vashem (Israel's Center for Holocaust studies). Patterson reviewed major histories of the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer and Martin Gilbert and Holocaust films such as "The Partisans of Vilna" and "The Wannsee Conference." His review essay--"Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka"--was included in A Legacy Recorded: An Anthology of Martyrdom and Resistance (Harvey Rosenfeld and Eli Zborowski, editors), a book that is dedicated to "the survivors of the Holocaust, whose Spirit and Soul are embodied in this book."

Now that I have read the completed book, I feel that my confidence in his ability to sensitively carry out this project was well placed. The book is very well researched (with almost 700 end notes), and it is written with great sensitivity and compassion. Eternal Treblinka does not equate animals and people. Rather, it shows how the frequent vilification of people as rats, vermin, pigs, insects, beasts, monkeys, etc., dehumanizes people and makes it easier to oppress, enslave, and murder them. He documents many examples of this process, relating it to the treatment of slaves, native American Indians, Japanese people during World War II, Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and other examples.

The book carefully shows how the enslavement ("domestication") of animals became the model and inspiration for all the oppressions that followed. In particular. he documents a trail from slaughterhouse production lines to Henry Ford's assembly lines for the mass production of automobiles to Hitler's methods in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. He also discusses the myth of Hitler's "vegetarianism"--his diet of little or no meat he often followed to reduce his chronic health problems Throughout the book, Patterson is sensitive to the views of Holocaust survivors. Lucy Kaplan, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has contributed an eloquent Foreword. An entire chapter profiles animal advocates who are Holocaust survivors, children or grandchildren of survivors, people who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and those who have given thought to the lessons of the Holocaust. Another chapter, "The Other Side of the Holocaust," discusses German and German-American animal advocates who began their lives in Nazi Germany. There is also a chapter on the exploitation and slaughter of animals as a major theme in the writings of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-91), many of whose characters were Holocaust survivors. The title of the book comes from a statement by one of Singer's characters: "...for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka."

This book has helped me understand how the exploitation and oppression of animals has been a major part of human history and how the degradation of humans by vilifying them as animals has justified horrific treatment of people. It has inspired me to try to increase my efforts to promote vegetarianism and animal rights. Patterson's extensive and positive discussion of Jewish teachings about tsa'ar ba1alei chayim, the Torah mandate to avoid causing "sorrow to living creatures," is very welcome.

A problem is that in the opening chapter Patterson states that some historians and environmentalists blame the Genesis verse, in which God grants people dominion over the earth, for western civilization's destruction and despoliation of the environment. By failing to mention traditional Jewish interpretations of this verse that define dominion as responsible stewardship rather than as domination, he may leave the mistaken impression that the exploitation of animals and the environment is religiously sanctioned. To his credit, once alerted to this omission, the author has agreed to correct the matter in future editions of the book and has added my article giving traditional Jewish sources on this issue to the book's website.

The biblical teaching that humans are granted dominion over animals does not give people a warrant to wantonly exploit animals. It certainly does not permit us to breed animals and then treat them as machines designed solely to meet human needs. Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as guardianship, or stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the world. This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29). This mandate is almost immediately followed by God's declaration that all of Creation was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). Perhaps this indicates that Adam and Eve's original vegetarian diet was consistent with the stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humanity. Another indication of the true interpretation of dominion is the Torah verse that states that God put Adam, the first human being, into the Garden of Eden to "work it and to guard it." (Genesis 2:15)

While not discussed in this book, a second error of some animal activists (as well as those who exploit animals) is the presumption that the biblical teaching that only people are created in the Divine Image means that God places little or no value on animals. While the Torah does state that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image" (Genesis 5:1), it also makes it clear that animals are also God's creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state that to be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is compassionate," they teach, "so you should be compassionate." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, discusses this concept: "You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called upon to act with love and justice." Concerning the biblical concept that human beings were created to "serve and safeguard the earth" (Genesis 2:15), Rabbi Hirsch states that this actually limits our rights over other living creatures. He writes: "The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creatures' to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God's will....To this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature." So, as the Lord is our shepherd, we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings of animals.

Thus, when properly conceived, these biblical verses actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals. If only they and other Jewish teachings on compassion to animals were correctly understood and applied, it would have prevented the many examples of human and animal abuses that Patterson so cogently considers.

The connections between the mentality and methods behind the oppression of animals and the oppression of human beings that are documented in this important and timely book have great potential to stir Jews (and others) to start to apply these verses in Genesis and other Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals, and thereby to help shift the world from its present perilous, inhumane path. I hope that Eternal Treblinka will be widely read, that its message will be extensively applied for the benefit of both humans and animals, and that it will help lead to that day when, in the words of Isaiah (11:6), "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's Holy mountain."