Interview with Author of Eternal Treblinka
by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.
RS: For those not yet familiar with Eternal Treblinka, what's your book about?
CP: It's about similar attitudes and methods behind our society's treatment of animals and the way people have often mistreated each other throughout history, most notably during the Holocaust. This parallel may surprise some people, but as I contend in the book, the exploitation of animals was the model and inspiration for the atrocities people committed against each other, slavery and the Holocaust being but two of the more dramatic examples. In the first part of the book (Chapters 1-5) I describe the emergence of the widespread belief that human beings are the "master species" and discuss the industrialized slaughter of both animals and people in modern times. The last part of the book (Chapters 6-8) profiles Jewish and German animal advocates on both sides of the Holocaust, including the great Yiddish writer and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.
RS: Isaac Bashevis Singer figures very strongly in the book, doesn't he?
CP: In many ways, it's more his book than mine. It's his vision--what he expressed so very well in his stories, novels, memoirs, and interviews--which I write about in Chapter 7. As far as I'm concerned, he said it all. I merely came along and filled in the details. The book's epigraph comes from Singer's short story, "The Letter Writer," about a man who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He puts milk and cheese out for a mouse who comes out only at night. However, when he falls ill and can't feed the mouse anymore, he fears the worst. I chose that part of the story to be the book's epigraph: "In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. 'What do they know--all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world--about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.'" I dedicated Eternal Treblinka to Singer's memory and like to think that if he were still alive (he died in 1991) he would very much approve of my book.
RS: Why did you write it?
CP: To answer that I would have to tell you my life story, and I'll spare you that. Let me answer your question by telling you a little bit about my background, which I wrote about in the Preface. While in New York doing graduate work at Columbia University, I became close friends with a German Jewish refugee, traumatized by her experience of living in Nazi Germany for six years. Her story moved me so much that I began an intensive study of the Holocaust that led to my first book, Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond, published in the fall of 1982. The following summer I attended the Yad Vashem Institute for Holocaust Education in Jerusalem, and upon my return to the United States, I began reviewing books for Martyrdom and Resistance, a bimonthly now published by the International Society of Yad Vashem. My awareness of the scope of our society's exploitation and slaughter of animals has been a more recent development. I grew up and spent most of my adult life oblivious to the extent to which our society is built on institutionalized violence against animals. For a long time it never occurred to me to challenge or even question our way of life. The late AIDS and animal activist Steven Simmons described the attitude behind the way our society treats animals as follows: "Animals are innocent casualties of the world view that asserts that some lives are more valuable than others, that the powerful are entitled to exploit the powerless, and that the weak must be sacrificed for the greater good." Once I realized this was the same attitude behind the Holocaust, I began to see the connections that are the subject of this book.
RS: The photo on the book's cover shows a World War II German soldier carrying off several geese he's holding upside down by the feet. Why did you choose this for the cover?
CP: One of the many books I read for my research was The German Army and Genocide: Crimes Against War Prisoners, Jews, and Other Civilians, 1939-1944, edited by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and published by The New Press in New York. When I saw the photo of the German solider carrying off the geese, no doubt to kill them, I thought, "That says it all." I decided the photo would be a good one for the cover, and nothing came along after that to make me change my mind.
RS: Do you expect the book to be controversial?
CP: I'm not sure what to expect. As I told someone recently, I don't know if I should get ready to take a bow, or hide under the bed. The early feedback has been generally very positive, but this has come mostly from people favorably disposed to the book's point of view. Since the book is bold and original, I expect that for some people it may take some getting used to.
RS: Are you concerned Holocaust survivors might be offended?
CP: I will certainly be sorry if that happens. As a Holocaust educator, I try very hard to be sensitive to the feelings of survivors and have made a special effort to make them part of the book. Lucy Rosen Kaplan, who wrote the Foreword, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She did a beautiful job, and I'm proud to have her statement open the book. In Chapter 6 ("We Were Like That Too") I tell the stories of survivors, children of survivors, and people who lost family members in the Holocaust, describing how and why they turned to animal advocacy. Their determination to relieve the plight of the most defenseless and exploited of all the world's victims is, I think, one of the most moving parts of the book. It reminds me of the observation Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, made more than a century ago. "It's a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong," she said, "something the best people have always done."
RS: How do you plan to answer those who may accuse you of using the Holocaust to advance animal rights?
CP: Because the Holocaust is utterly unique, I'm opposed to simplistic comparisons of the Holocaust to other genocides and to the facile use of the term "holocaust" for everything from the latest mass murder to a five-alarm fire. However, I do not agree with those who insist on making the Holocaust a sacred shrine that's isolated from the rest of history and the rest of the world. If I felt that way, I never would have written this book that examines the roots of the Holocaust and relates it to the human arrogance behind animal exploitation and the injustices against humans which have flowed from it. I think the attempt to fossilize the Holocaust and keep it separate from and unrelated to the rest of history is an insidiously subtle form of Holocaust denial.
RS: How about those who will say your book trivializes the Holocaust?
CP: The claim that the exploitation and destruction of the other inhabitants of the earth is "trivial" says a lot about the person making such a claim. Even those who care only about human life should recognize that our exploitation and killing of animals is bad for human beings as well since animal agriculture and animal-based diets are having devastating effects on human health, ecosystems, water and other scarce resources, and are contributing to worldwide hunger. I hope Eternal Treblinka will be, to use Kafka's phrase, "the ax for the frozen sea within us."
RS: What's the link between the mistreatment of animals and the mistreatment of people?
CP: That's really what the book is all about. I maintain that the exploitation and slaughter of animals was and is the model and impetus for human oppression and violence--war, terrorism, slavery, genocide, and the countless other atrocities we humans persist in inflicting on each other. In the book I show how the enslavement ("domestication") of animals led to human slavery, how the breeding of domesticated animals led to compulsory sterilization, euthanasia killings, and genocide, and how the assembly-line slaughter of animals led to the assembly-line slaughter of people. A better understanding of these connections should help make our planet a more humane and livable place for all of us--people and animals alike. A new awareness is essential for the survival of our endangered planet.
RS: What do you hope your book accomplishes?
CP: I hope very much that it will sensitize people to the kind of mentality that produced the Holocaust and thereby check the outbreak of mass murders and genocides. I also hope the book helps our society recognize, acknowledge, and take responsiblity for its horrific treatment of animals and helps us curb our arrogant attitude toward the earth and the rest of its inhabitants that is causing such havoc. I would like the book's discussion of the root causes of the Holocaust to reduce the level of human and animal suffering in the world. What I would really love to see happen, of course, is a halt to our relentless abuse and killing of calves, sheep, chickens, pigs, cows, seals and all the other innocents, but unfortunately that's not going to happen soon.
* * * *
Dr. Richard Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), is the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.