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U-M­D scholar searches for meaning in the Holocaust

After years of studying and thinking about the Holocaust, U-M­Dearborn Prof. Sidney Bolkosky is not optimistic about finding meaning in the catastrophe. "Who can possibly fathom the meaning of the death of 1.5 million children in crematoria and in killing fields, or the starvation and enslavement of thousands more?" he writes.

"To speak of the 'meaning' of the Holocaust implies some understanding of the event, a meaning derived from the examination of its history," he says. "But what could such a meaning be?"

Bolkosky, who has been documenting the oral history of Holocaust survivors in the Detroit metropolitan area for more than 20 years, is the author of "Searching for Meaning in the Holocaust," published this year by Greenwood Publishing Group. The book is part of a series of works on Christianity and the Holocaust by historians, philosophers, theologians and other scholars.

Over the years, Bolkosky has interviewed more than 150 survivors of the Holocaust. His interviews have been recorded on hundreds of hours of audiotapes and 60 hours of videotapes, now being transcribed and made available electronically through the resources of the Mardigian Library at U-M­Dearborn.

"Interviewing survivors had never gotten easier over my 20 years of doing it," he writes. "If each interviewee experienced doubts and reservations, not to mention physical and psychological disabilities, just before and after my visit, I, too, hesitated at doorways, considered turning around and leaving."

Bolkosky has written several books and numerous articles based on the interviews he has conducted, but he says this was the toughest book he's written. "I was constantly rewriting because I was so distraught about how to deal with the subject, after listening to those tapes again and again," he says.

In a chapter titled "The Devil," Bolkosky writes about some literary antecedents of the archetypal bureaucrats who were capable of administering the Holocaust. He cites characters from the works of novelists Franz Kafka and Arthur Koestler and the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset.

"Disturbingly and critically first presented by litterateurs, these characters' behaviors elided into that of real figures and demonstrated an alarming
continuity that placed the Holocaust in a continuum of Western culture, and suggested that it was not anomalous," Bolkosky says.

He also writes of the attitudes of Holocaust survivors to religious belief and their sense of the place of God in the Holocaust, and about the search by some scholars for "the simple answer."

"If they ever sought it, many historians have abandoned that quest for closure," Bolkosky says. "And surely survivors, many of whom sought it desperately, have acknowledged the futility of such a quest." "After 20 years of listening, I have not been completely convinced of the virtue of speaking, but despite my own ambivalence, listening and chronicling still seems a good thing to do," he says. "Our only hope rests in thinking, more specifically, thinking through other people's eyes, and remembering."

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