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Henry Greenspan

Both at Once: On Righteous Rage and Poison

I have been performing my play, Remnants, for over thirty years, now at over 300 venues worldwide, including Israel. The piece is a trajectory of monologues based on forty years of sustained conversations (not single testimonies) with individual Holocaust survivors.  Here is an excerpt from the end of one of the monologues.

What helped me survive, they don’t write it in a book.  It’s not in any of the books that I looked at. And I don’t think they’re going to put it in Reader’s Digest either.  Because I don’t think people really want to read this—

Because, you see, what helped me survive was hatred.  Pure, undiluted hatred.  And the wish for revenge.

So when I was in the camp, and I looked at the SS man with the machine gun in the tower, I said to myself: “One day I’m going to have that machine gun.  One day, I’m going to be up in that tower.”

See this is the power of hatred.  The power to stay alive—to stay alive because I looked at that SS (slams it) SONOFABITCH—

And I said to myself:

“I’m going to survive you!  I am going to survive you!  You will be torn to pieces.  And I will go on!”

(He raises his fist but lowers his head, looking away.  He is alone on stage, embodying both triumph and agony.)

And thank God I did!  Thank God I did!  Sh’ma y’Israel!  Thank God I did!

The monologue is deliberately unresolved.  The survivor’s rage is righteous, especially after the atrocities we’ve heard earlier in the play.  I want audiences to feel that fully.  I want them to share his hatred and his passion for revenge.  And they do.

I also want them to share his distress and aloneness at the end.  Carrying such hate, at least for any length of time, is poison.  Poison to the self; often poison to others. It is one of the “legacies” of the Holocaust of which we rarely speak.

The survivor himself felt both, but not all survivors do, at least not openly.  At one performance attended by many survivors, the audience stood and applauded at the line, “you will be torn to pieces.”  I don’t know if they took in the ending.  In general, American Jewish audiences tend to be uncertain. I’ve learned that the ambiguity of the piece leaves many off-balance.

I like to unbalance an audience.  Lack of resolution compels discussion, which I always include after a performance.  The struggle is to hold on to both sides without losing either—both the righteousness of the hate and its cost in poison.  Almost no one wants to hold on to both sides.

For obvious reasons, I thought a lot about this monologue during the past ten days.  Images of tearing people into pieces is emotionally righteous after Hamas’s atrocities.  No amount of peace talk will change that.  Fantasies of total extirpation, a final solution of the atrocity problem, allows no room for qualification.  It will be dismissed, as it has been, as weak, naive, and stupid.  Screw them.  Screw all of them.

The point is not to challenge this righteous emotional conviction.  It is to elicit another emotional conviction.  Not that vengeful hate is wrong, which it isn’t, but that it brings its own collateral damage—damage to ourselves, first of all.  Damage that is as visceral as vengeance.  We are the first to drink the poison.

If this is a call for compassion, then, it is directed to us, to Israelis and Jews more widely.  It is self-centered.  I want to provoke a struggle, not between us and them, but between us and us.  Within each of us.

So this is not about policy, least of all military policy.  Individual self-knowledge rarely changes outcomes in the wider world, which unfolds according to its own mechanisms and momentum.  A collective action in motion will stay in motion.  And if there is more to learn on this level, we will learn it later—in victory, catastrophe, or both at once.

About the Author
Henry (Hank) Greenspan is a psychologist and playwright at the University of Michigan who has been interviewing, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust and its survivors since the 1970s.
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