Sunday, August 10, 2014

History ("The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl" by Arthur Allen)

Imagine a pocketwatch. Taken in its functioning state, the watch seems simple and singular: a solid round case, a numbered face, two moving arms, a glass dome, a winder, and a chain. Pry away the back of the device, however, and you discover another layer: an assortment of cogs, winches, springs, wheels, screws, regulators, stones, jewels, wheels, and clicks. Without these smaller pieces, the larger machine could not function; even if only one of the many parts broke or malfunctioned, the entire apparatus would immediately become unusable. Begin removing these surface pieces one at a time, and even more layers reveal themselves. The more intricate, advanced, and expensive the watch, the more developed its inner workings.

Studying a historical event is like examining a pocketwatch. At first, we see only the overriding whole: the war itself, the results of an election, the man setting two feet on the moon. When we begin to dig, however--through memoirs, articles, interviews, diaries, photographs, memorandums, letters, video--we see the smaller parts, the machinery. Each demands a thorough study all its own, until the story of this one event--this metaphorical pocketwatch--becomes the story of several events and several pieces, to the point where scrutiny and interest narrows until it has focused on the tooth of every cog, and one large narrative is suddenly one hundred or one thousand. Some of these pocketwatches are small and disassemble easily; others continue to reveal their deeper layers and smaller pieces centuries after the fact.

Such is and will forever be the case with the Holocaust. There is no event comparable to it in breadth, scope, relevance, horrors, contradictions, and unanswered questions; and such was its magnitude that every major catastrophe, every condemnable human rights abuse or genocide or ethnic cleansing, is held up against the Holocaust and compared, as though it were now the one true measure of our own inhumanity. Nothing has ever come close, and just as we threaten to forget, it offers up more of itself--another layer of its being. An unmarked grave, perhaps, or a forest that has flourished around hundreds of bomb-craters. A house goes up for sale, is inspected, and reveals hideaways, transforming the collective emptiness of those crawl-spaces into something haunting and unresolved. A search through storage or archives reveals a manuscript or box of letters that has gone unseen in six decades--another life confirmed, another experience ready to be told. Every life taken is a story unspoken, and every unspoken story is another chapter of history that will forever go unread--a piece of the watch that has fallen away and cannot be replaced.

Arthur Allen's book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is the story of two scientists--two pieces of that great historical pocketwatch--whose determination to find a cure for typhus was threatened by World War II and the Holocaust. Both men followed separate paths--Rudolf Weigl operated his lab in the heart of Lwow, while Ludwik Fleck worked in Jewish ghettoes and eventually the hospitals at Auschwitz and Buchenwald--but pursuing the same goal. Along the way, they faced threats of violence and death, as did the hundreds of men and women who worked alongside them. Some of them, unfortunately, would not survive the war, but the majority did, and they were able to say that it had been because of two men whose research--invaluable to the German army, as their troops were at the greater risk of contracting typhus, and the infected populations of the ghetto threatened to spread it beyond their confines--offered a refuge when there was none. In fact, Weigl and Fleck did their best to help the subjugated and innocent over the violent and destructive:  Weigl protected his employees by giving them safety in his lab, and his employees smuggled extra vials into the ghetto while under-developing the vials set aside for Nazi inoculations; and Fleck devised a false cure for the Nazi officials of the concentration camp while replicating the real cure for its prisoners. At war's end, both men had saved lives--on top of creating a legitimate cure for typhus--while working in a system that had done the opposite. And while some have argued that both Weigl and Fleck compromised their ethics by working under Nazi leadership rather than refusing, which risked certain death, that compromise had a much more positive and lasting effect than dying as martyrs, since they could use the isolation of their work to heal and protect others while undermining those in power.

This story is a small wheel in the entire record of the Holocaust--one chapter among millions that work together to tell the whole story. And within the story of these two modest scientists are others, both good and bad, that are just as worthy of elaboration:  Erwin Ding, head of the Buchenwald hospital, whose pathetic self-image weakened him enough that the prisoners working under him could manipulate him with ease; Hermann Eyer, the Nazi overseer of Weigl's clinic, who understood what the doctor and his staff were doing with their vaccines but chose to turn a blind eye; Hans Baermann, a Buchenwald inmate who boiled the rabbits from typhus experiments and fed their meat to other prisoners; the various men and women whose dedication to curing typhus--and helping those in the ghettoes and camps--required letting thousands of lice feed on their blood every day, a process based on symbiosis at a time when savagery was the norm; and so on. Remove any single one of these people, and the entire story changes. Whether it shifts towards better or worse is not for us to say--time would have continued on, the watch would have kept up its tick-tock--but the fact that we know this part of the past exists is a victory in itself.

There is another reason why the pocketwatch serves as such a fitting analogy to history. Beyond their shared intricacies and the delicate ways in which each functions, there comes a point when even the finest and most reliable of timekeepers goes still. No watch is immortal to aging, and its pieces can only be replaced so many times before it's no longer the same tool it once was. Such is history. There will come a point in the not-too-distant future--in my lifetime--when the last living survivor of the Holocaust passes away, and suddenly we will be without witnesses. We will have lost our connection to that event, to a reminder of what happens when we give in to our lesser selves. We will have lost the muscle of our conscience. In the years after, there will be discoveries and reviews--unseen interviews, untranslated memoirs, forgotten letters or unsealed documents--and those will do much to finish a few of the unfinished chapters, keeping the connection alive for just a bit longer. But it will be a weak connection, like a story shouted across the sea from shores that grow ever more distant and enveloped in fog. We will replace our reliance on these witnesses with records, videos, analyses, but they will not be the same as sitting across from them, human being before human being, and allowing their existence to confirm the existence of so many millions of others who do not have the luxury of being heard.

Books like Allen's will not cease to be written when the pocketwatch goes still, nor should they be, and he is neither the first nor the last to write about this subject--the more that is learned, the more that needs to be written. But there will come a time when the research will become final, and there will be nothing new to write about--not because the literature will have been exhausted and the witnesses will all have told their stories, but because there will be no new literature and no more witnesses. It is vital that the shelves of Holocaust research continue to expand, because there will come a time when those shelves will hold all we have. And when the history of an event stops growing--when our knowledge suddenly has boundaries, when winding the pocketwatch has no effect--we will be lost and left without voices to guide us home.