Hannah Arendt and Banality

There is something about the word banal. I just find myself liking the way it feels in my head, on my tongue. Banal – for an ordinary, common, cliché, overworked, overused, kind of word, there is just something about banal that feels fresh, original and interesting to me. But that probably has to do with my earliest substantive encounter with banal. I was introduced to the word through Hannah Arendt, and her use of the phrase “the banality of evil.”

Hannah was a Jewish German born political theorist. She escaped Europe during the Holocaust and became an American citizen. Her theoretical work dealt with the nature of power, democracy, authority and totalitarianism.

In 1961 she was working for the New Yorker, and was sent to observe the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her observations and reporting evolved into the book: “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil.”  That was where she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” In the book she wondered if evil is always intentional, or if perhaps some people thoughtlessly obey orders or follow group opinions without critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inactions, none the less, leading to the perpetration of evil in the world.

Here are two of the many quotes from Hannah that resonate for me

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

So, for all of this? Let us always remember to be awake, to be aware, to think about the long and short term implications of our everyday actions. What we do, what we choose to do, it all makes a difference. Life lived fully, life lived well is anything but banal.



Corrie ten Boom and forgiveness

Sometimes being ordinary is enough. Sometimes being ordinary is extraordinary.

On April 15 1892, Cornelia ten Boom was born to an ordinary family in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Ten Boom family was devoutly Christian and they were serious about putting the principles of their faith into practice. Family, friends and neighbors were always welcomed into their home and at their table. After May 1940 when the Nazi’s invaded the Netherlands and began arresting Jewish people, the Ten Boom family remained an ordinary family who welcomed family, friends and neighbors into their home and at their table. They did not discriminate based on religion. If someone came to their door, the Ten Boom family welcomed that person into their home.

So one day in 1942 a Jewish woman appeared at their door, suitcase in hand. Her husband had been arrested. Her son had gone into hiding. The police had already questioned her, and she was afraid to return home. She had heard that the ten Booms had helped other Jewish people, and so she came asking for their help. Corrie’s father Casper welcomed the woman into their home and promised to help her.

Corrie managed to acquire extra ration cards, and they became very active in the Dutch Underground, hiding Jewish families and helping them to escape to freedom.  In February 1944 a Dutch informant told the Nazi’s about the Ten Boom family’s work. Later that day the entire Ten Boom family was arrested and sent to prison. Casper, Corrie’s father died ten days later. Corrie’s brothers were released, but Corrie and her sister were to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. Betsie died there on December 16, 1944.  Corrie was released on December 28, 1944 through a clerical error.  Shortly after her release, all of the women in the camp were executed.

All of the Jewish people that the Ten Booms had been hiding at the time of their arrest remained undiscovered, and all but one, an older woman, survived the war.

After the war Israel honored Corrie ten Boom by naming her “Righteous Among the Nations”. She was also knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands in recognition of her work during the war. Sometimes being ordinary is indeed extraordinary

But this story that Corrie tells about her experiences after the war is what I find most extraordinary. She says that she was traveling in Germany in 1947, giving lectures on the importance of forgiveness. After one of her lectures she was approached by a man who she recognized as one of the cruelest of the guards from the Ravensbruck prison camp. She understandably felt a myriad of emotions – forgiveness not among them. Having lived all of her life as a devout Christian, Corrie did what she had done all of her life. She prayed. She took the hands of the former prison guard, and she prayed from the depth of her heart. And she found the grace to forgive him. That I find most extraordinary.

She also wrote that in her post-war experience with other victims of Nazi inhumanities, those who were able to forgive were best able to rebuild their lives.

In 1977, 85-year-old Corrie moved to Placentia, California. In 1978, she suffered two strokes, the first rendering her unable to speak, and the second resulting in paralysis. She died on her 91st birthday, 15 April 1983, after a third stroke. Corrie ten Boom was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things. I think we can all learn a lesson or two from her – forgiveness among them.

Corrie ten Boom wrote a number of books, perhaps her most well-known book is The Hiding Place, which describes the work of her family during the war years. You should give it a read.

The Anne Frank Game is not a game

I first met Anne Frank when I was in high school. We very quickly became inseparable, very quickly. This was an odd and unexpected pairing on so many levels. I was a devote Roman Catholic at the time. She was Jewish. I had never met anyone who was not Christian at that point in my life. I didn’t even know if there was anyone who was not Christian who live in my home town – and everyone pretty much knew (or knew about) everyone else who lived in that small, small town. So, indeed we were an odd pair, Christian and Jew, living and dead.

Just because I met Anne Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank” did not mean she could not be my best friend. Many of my dearest, most cherished friends, my most helpful teachers and mentors I met in books. Anne Frank lived with me, in my mind, constantly as I read the book. And for months after, memories of her life lingered and haunted my thoughts and dreams. Her feelings about family members, her frustration with her mother, her longings for love, her longing for more, her fears and anxieties, all of it was real to me. Anne Frank’s life so resonated with me, her life was so much more clearly articulated than my own, it was comforting to take refuge in it. Well, it was comforting right up until the last pages.

The memory of Anne Frank has stayed with me these many (many, many) years. She has remained one of my most cherished friends. So, imagine my delight when I happened on another book about her! I was browsing the library when I came across ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,’ by Nathan Englander. It turned out that this is a book of short stories, and none of them are quite about my friend Anne. But it is a haunting collection of short stories. The first story in the collection does allude to Anne. In that story two couples, both Jewish with common roots in Brooklyn, one Hassidic living in Israel, the other not religious living in Florida reunite in Florida. As the day and conversations progress, the two couples play “the Anne Frank game.” This is a game where they wonder and debate which of their friends would hide them in the event of another Holocaust. Who could they ask, who could they trust to put their own lives at risk, to shelter them if there were another Holocaust? And who would each of them put their own lives at risk to shelter if they were in a position to do so? In the story, unexpected truths emerge (of course, that’s what makes it a good story). As I came to the end of the story and put the book down, I was clearly not finished with the story. I found myself continuing to wonder . . .

 If there was another Holocaust (G-d forbid!), who would I shelter? Who could I trust to put their life and the lives of their families at risk to shelter me?

 This is not such an abstract, academic question. Look around our world. Since 1945 there have been (and ARE)ongoing genocides/holocausts. There ARE people and peoples in need of sheltering. We only need to look to Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Botswana, Brazil, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Chad, Chiapas, Chilé, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Egypt, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia: Abkhasia, Guatemala, Guinea Bissau, Gujarat, India including Bihar, Indonesia,  Iran, Iraq, Israel – Palestine, Kashmir, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Liberia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Northern Ireland, Nuba, Pakistan including East Pakistan (Bengal), West Pakistan,  Baluchistan, Sind, Paraguay, Peoples  Republic of  China, Philippines, Russia –Chechnya , Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal – Casamance, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Southern Sudan and Darfur, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tibet, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, USSR national  minorities, esp. in Crimea, Dagestan Ingushetia, Uzbekistan Fergana Valley, Venezuela, Vietnam, Western Sahara, Yugoslavia including Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia: Kosovo, Zimbabwe … there are genocides and holocausts afoot in our world today.

So, perhaps better put: who are you willing to put your life at risk to shelter? Do you need to actually know the person? Who gets to count as someone worth saving? What will you do? Really, what will you do today and tomorrow? what will you do now?