“There are no parallels to the life of the concentration camps. Its horror can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death. It can never be fully reported for the very reason that the survivor returns to the world of the living, which make it impossible for him to believe fully in his own past experiences. It is as though he had a story to tell of another planet, for the status of the inmates in the world of the living, where nobody is supposed to know if they are alive or dead, is such that is as though they had never been born. Therefore all parallels create confusion and distract attention from what is essential. ” (Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 444).
What do Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism and Mad Men have to do with one another? Well, more than you may think. I had a feeling something was up with the “new Jew” on Mad Men. A few episodes ago (we’re now in the 5th season), a very rough-around-the-edges, ethnic Jew named Michael Ginsberg is hired at Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, much to Peggy’s surprise. She just doesn’t think Don will like this guy. Oddly enough, there seems to be a lot of parallels between the Ginsberg and Peggy: both live with their ethnic parents when they start their positions at a big advertising firm on Madison Avenue. By the end of the episode, Michael is home with his heavily-accented father, who holds his son’s head and gives him a bracha.
This past episode (Episode 506: Far Away Places), the new Jewish guy is featured once more. Peggy and Michael are staying late after work. They talk about themselves; Michael claims he was born on Mars and is a Martian. Peggy is tickled by this and then he reveals that he was allegedly born in a concentration camp. This is a real shocker: the ethnic Jewish American with the New Yawk accent is really a product of the camps. Peggy is astonished by this—astonished enough to call her Jewish, activist boyfriend from Brooklyn to see if this could be true. He answers, “These things happened.”
The idea that the camps were another kind of planet that produced Jews of an alien form—a different life-form entirely new from the old—is something Arendt notes: that there were no parallels to the life of the concentration camp and returning from the camps would be like returning from an entirely different planet. Ginsberg’s claim that he is a Martian plays on this very idea, that if one has been born in the camps one may as well be from a different planet. I ask then how does the Holocaust produce a new “Jew” that is different from anything that existed before?
I think all of this interestingly aligns with new research claiming that the Holocaust has genetically altered survivors and their offspring, some of which can be found here:
- “Genetic Scars of the Holocaust: Children Suffer Too:” http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2016824,00.html
- http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/rachel-yehuda (Rachel Yehuda’s research).
The idea that a new Jew is created from this experience might be related back to my post on The Ghost Writer, where the fictional Ann Frank’s body is noted for its unusual proportions—almost alien.
I find all of these connections fascinating and I wonder how might these connections translate onto the person of Primo Levi, a survivor, who writes sci-fi alongside holocaust literature. Is this coincidental? Is it possible that the new Jew—an alien species, different from the Jews that had preceded it— that is created as a result of post-Nazi genocide requires a new planet as a space.
I’d like to conclude this post with a little meditation on how sometimes academic research and the wider culture wonderfully align with one another. Prisciila Wald gave a talk at Utopia, Dystopia, and the Problem of Technology Conference here at Duke where she referenced this great quote from Origins of Totalitarianism and the extra-planetary aspect of the camps. I naturally scribbled down the reference to look at a later date; then low and behold, the new episode of Mad Men airs the Sunday following her talk and this blog post is a result of this coincidence of events. I say, something is in the ether.