November 9, 2006
William Styron, an appreciation
I have long disagreed with some of my Jewish colleagues who were uncomfortable with William Styron's choice of a non-Jewish inmate at Auschwitz.
First of all, history will record that there was many such inmates and their story, too, should be told. Secondly, it was an act of ultimate respect for this Virginia Gentile -- the ultimate goy, who looked like a WASP and sounded like one -- to approach the inferno indirectly and not attempt to enter into the Jewish experience.
Furthermore, he was faithful to his own experience. Styron knew such a woman as Sophie, and those of us who know the Holocaust know the story upon which Sophie's character is based. And Styron deliberately didn't enter Auschwitz; he viewed it from the vantage point of the Commandant's House. He understood the distinctness of the Jewish experience and respected it.
It is fitting that the author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" approached Auschwitz from the vantage point of slavery. How else would a Southern boy be able to identify directly with the world of Auschwitz, and, indeed, once we look at slavery, then the significance of Auschwitz as the epicenter of evil becomes ever more apparent. For at Auschwitz, the Jew was reduced to a consumable raw material to be discarded in the process of manufacture and recycled into the German economy.
I remember how excited I was when I first read "Sophie's Choice" to see that amidst the novel, Styron had quoted directly and succinctly from my teacher Richard L. Rubenstein's slim but very powerful work of social thought "The Cunning of History." He had understood that the Holocaust was a manifestation in the extreme -- the most extreme -- of what is common to the mainstream of Western civilization. He then understood how he could grapple with this historical event.
Most importantly: Like Lawrence Langer, Styron understood that the victims faced "choice-less choices," choosing between the impossible and the horrific, never choosing between good and bad, right and wrong, but between the unimaginable and the impossible. So when Sophie was forced to choose, Styron was more than respectful.
He protected her zone of privacy. Every casual reader wanted to know, how did Sophie feel? -- a trivial question that would merit a trivial answer. She did not feel. She could not feel. Instead, Styron asked: "What manner of man put Sophie before such a choice?" -- a profound question that shatters our image of humanity and shakes us to the foundation of our being.
"Someday I will understand Auschwitz." This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: "Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death. And thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world."
Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?"
Bill never ceased asking that question, and those of us who knew him admired him as a writer and embraced him as a man.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at the University of Judaism.