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Inhuman "Humanities"

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 unique 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 uniquely 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.


April 6, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 14

(13) Kenan Moss, December 24, 2013 2:58 PM

What is culture?

Culture is merely the manner in which a group of people behaves: it is the acts which give them coherence - a sense of identity. It implies the existance of a model usually supplied by some class or group accepted as representing the essence of "usness". With the rise of academe as a defining measure of status (not birth or wealth) there arose its distictive mark: language. Through it they could recognize each other and distinguish themselves from the hoy polloy (from which many had proudly managed to escape). These private languages (there are as many of them as there are professions) are what give them the status they yearn for and the inability of the masses to understand their discourse is their greatest conquest. However, unlike an aristocracy that has arisen over time and exists because of its close relation to the people and whose leadership is accepted for its protection and beneficence: these new leaders are "luftmenschen". They have no commitment to anything other than their own self-importance. It is in such conditions of intellectual betrayal that figures like Hitler arise and drown the incomprehensible babble with a unifying call to action to those left to drown in impotent anomie.

(12) Jessi Matherly, February 9, 2009 8:27 PM

It was helpful for my paper

I would like to say thank you for this helpful webpage, although i loath Hitler and all he did, I still must write a paper on it, and i found this particularly helpful. :D

(11) cindy haas, April 2, 2007 9:34 PM

Comments on this article

I just wanted to comment on how terribly sad and interesting at the same time your article was on the Holocaust, and I nearly cry everytime I read something about it, especially Anne Frank, thanks Cindy Haas

(10) Stephanie, July 19, 2006 12:00 AM

I Hate Them

I have about 50 Holocaust books in my collection. One of my newer acquisitions is one based on Mengele's experiments. I felt hatred before reading that particular one, and after, I felt more hatred. Now, after reading this article, I have even more loathing for the Germans; keep telling all generations so that they may never forget, but in my opinion, with all the people that suffered, MY people, I can feel all the hatred and loathing I want. I won't get past it, or forgive. Not in this lifetime, or any other. If given the chance, I personally would dispatch all the Natzi's by hand, if only I could go back in time. To defend my Jewish Brethren, to help them, to keep that massacre from occuring, would be my greatest wish. To all the survivors, I love you, and am grateful you all had the courage and faith to survive. To all the lost souls, I pray for you daily, and wish the Natzi's souls are rotting in hell being tortured in a worse way than any torture they inflicted on my people. Am I mad? Angry? Hateful? Resentful? Full of spite and malice for the Germans? Harboring a grudge? Yes yes yes. Thank you for this opportunity to comment, and thank you for this forum in which to read and learn more on the subject.

Deborah Waynick, June 9, 2013 10:26 PM

Comment to Stephanie

I was enlighted even more with the brief writing from the Rabbi. Thank you. My comment is more toward a comment made by Stephanie. Stephanie, I do not know how old you are, regardless this must be stated! NOT ALL GERMANS WERE NAIZS, THERE WERE SOME GERMANS WHO WERE, BUT THERE ARE MANY OTHER GERMAN'S WHO WERE NOT! Please seek some help with you feeling that All of Germans were NAZIS. That is a rediculous uneducated statement you made everythime you condemmed all Germans. Shalom

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