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Compassion, the most disconcerting enigma of human nature

by Armel Job

Among the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, that of Ruth Klüger recounted in  “Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered” [1] occupies a special place. Born in 1931, a Viennese Jew, Ruth Klüger was interned in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Christianstadt. She experienced such an absolute evil there that it then seemed impossible to bear witness to it, so much did she encounter the total incomprehension of those she spoke to. Among other paradoxes in her work, she says that her years in prison made her understand that the real mystery of existence is not evil, as we repeat in the envy, but, on the contrary, good. And to report an inexplicable episode of the end of his internment in Auschwitz.

Women were selected to go to work in Christianstadt. They were presented to an SS assisted by a secretary. Girls under fifteen and women who were too weak were sent to the gas chamber. Ruth was twelve, she was frail. She had no chance of being spared. However, seeing her approach in the line of sentenced persons, the secretary gets up, goes up to her and whispers in her ear to pass into the other file and, when she is in front of the SS, to declare – against all evidence – that she is fifteen years old. Which Ruth does without obviously convincing the SS about to send her to death, when the secretary points out to her that Ruth may be short, but well muscled and strong-willed. The SS let her pass.

According to Ruth Klüger, it is in this totally unpredictable gesture of compassion that lies the most disconcerting enigma of human nature. An opinion that we find in another witness of this time, Vassili Grossman. Life and Fate, his masterpiece dedicated to the Second War, for the worst horrors sends back to back the German and Soviet armies. He humbly opposes them with the absurd gesture of a woman in the ruins of Stalingrad who, discovering the corpse of her daughter, suddenly gives her bun to the German prisoner in charge of clearing the bodies, when she had already seized a brick for to hit him. Grossman says humanity’s only hope lies in the unexpected in what he calls “little goodness.”

Where, in fact, can we find reasons to believe that humanity will improve? Did philosophy, for example, make men better? Without calling into question the sincerity of all the systems since Antiquity (Marc-Aurèle, quite confit of stoicism, did he escape the caporalism of the empire?) One can go up in hairpin, for example, that the thought of the Enlightenment, which inspired the French Revolution, did not prevent the massacres of the Terror, that Marxism strayed into Stalinism or that Heidegger never renounced his adherence to Nazism.

Certain religions have certainly incited their followers to become saints for their personal salvation, precisely by the spiritual justification of kindness, but how many injustices, sufferings, crimes are hidden behind the rigidity of their dogmas? Culture, for its part, has it prevented barbarism? The torturers of the concentration camps, in the evening, listened, with a capsized heart, Bach or Mozart by the fireside.

Despite the disappointing setbacks and failures of thought systems, it has always remained against all odds, deeply rooted in humans, an irrepressible instinct that pushes us to be moved by what happens to others. This spring can be shattered by the cruelty of despotic regimes that deny certain people their human status, but such indoctrination clearly runs counter to the natural propensity to “feel like one’s fellow human beings”, according to the author. expression of Rousseau. [2]

This impulse has not failed to intrigue many observers of the human condition. To name just one and one of the most disillusioned, Schopenhauer evokes a curious awareness of the plight of others. “It is he who is suffering and not us and it is directly in his person that we feel the suffering, with sadness. We suffer with him, therefore in him: we feel his pain as his and we do not in any way imagine that it is ours. “[3]

Perhaps the foundation of morality – without which there can be no hope for humanity – rests on this disposition to sympathize rather than on injunctions from Heaven or reason. Who has ever taken pity on an unfortunate man by reference to the Declaration of Human Rights? “The heart has its reasons“, as we know, and these reasons are better than all the others.

[1] Klüger Ruth, Refus de témoigner, Viviane Hamy, 1997
[2] Émile, OC, IV, p.504.
3] Cité par Paul AUDI, L’empire de la compassion, Pocket, 2021, p.33

Illustration de l’entête: Les Bateliers de la Volga-Бурлаки на Волге– (1870-1873) . Ilia Repine (1844-1930). Huile sur toile,131,5/281cm. Musée russe, Saint-Pétersbourg. Russie.

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