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EPILOGUE: The Aftermath
 pg. 687 
Lingering Questions

"What happened, happened," said philosopher Jean Améry, a survivor of Auschwitz. "But that it happened," he added, "cannot be so easily accepted." The Holocaust cannot be "accepted" because so many questions linger in its wake. How? Why? Those two small words ask the most persistent questions: How did the Holocaust happen? Why did it occur?

Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg resisted "big questions" because he feared "small answers." Most Holocaust scholars find that "the devil is in the details." They do not jump to sweeping generalizations that "explain" the Holocaust. Instead, they gather, sift, and sort the evidence. They preserve and study documents, retrieve and evaluate testimony; they develop, analyze, and criticize the narratives that tell what happened.

As the 21st century begins, scholarly research focuses on questions such as: Precisely when did the Nazis decide to destroy European Jewry completely? What parts did Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and other key Nazi leaders play in the "Final Solution"? And were the perpetrators "ordinary" people or "willing executioners" of a specifically German kind? What is the significance of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust? How should oral histories from survivors be used in Holocaust research? How will memory of the Holocaust best be preserved as that event recedes further into the past and the survivors are no longer alive? Can the fundamental challenges that the Holocaust creates for Judaism and Christianity be credibly met? What can literature and art teach us about the Holocaust? In what ways is the Holocaust unique?

Although understanding emerges through inquiry about such issues, the resulting insights do not silence the questions How? and Why? How the Holocaust happened depends on why people acted as they did. Why people do the things they do is a question that historians can answer partly, but historical inquiry alone cannot master the range of human feeling, intention, reflection, and choice that enters into desires, motivations, yearnings, aims, hopes, and decisions. "Why did the Holocaust happen?" is a question that lingers even after our knowledge about how it happened has increased.

Why? also lingers because, as historian Saul Friedländer has pointed out, the smallest details raise the largest "whys." Those details--they involve the systematic murder of nearly six million Jews--show that Holocaust history is not history-as-usual. The Holocaust stretches comprehension beyond its limits. The more we learn about the Holocaust, the more devastating it turns out to be. Far from being satisfied, Why? lingers--silently if not openly--with unsatisfied intensity. Jean Améry was right: "What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted."

Having listened to as many Holocaust testimonies as anyone, Lawrence Langer reports that such anguish is by no means all that survivors report. Many talk about their determination to survive, including some who "knew" they would come out alive. Others accent their defiance against German brutality. There are also many who stress how important it has been for them to make their lives worthwhile and to retain hope after Auschwitz. "We lost," says one survivor, "and yet we won, we're going on."

What was lost includes more than a million Jewish children who were killed and, in addition, the countless girls and boys who might have been born if their potential mothers and fathers had not been murdered. Still, the "going on" is real, too. It includes children, grandchildren, and other descendants of the survivors. These flesh-and-blood survivor legacies already number in the millions. If the Holocaust is to be well remembered, their testimony will be important, too.

 May 8, 1996: Ten of approximately 400 human brains, mostly those of children, kept in formaldehyde jars for more than 50 years, are buried in Hamburg, Germany. The brains are the remains of mental patients judged genetically "unfit" by Nazi physicians and geneticists. Before being murdered, the victims were subjected to immoral medical experiments at the Alsterdorfer Institute, a Hamburg mental hospital. Identification of the remains began when a Hamburg woman watching a television report on the brains saw her sister's name on one of the jars.
 September 1996: A report by London's Jewish Chronicle claims that $4 billion ($65 billion in 1996 dollars) looted by the Nazis from Jews and others during World War II was diverted to Swiss banks. The sum is about 20 times the amount previously acknowledged by the Swiss; See December 1996.
EPILOGUE: The Aftermath
 pg. 687 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.