The Story I Choose to Tell
by Jonathan Ort, 2023 Seminary Fellow
The concrete slabs cut a jagged silhouette. Over the course of eighty years, they have sagged, buckled, then snapped under their own weight, plunging into the void beneath. It took me a moment to grasp what they were or had been: a block of pit latrines. Here, prisoners in Sector II of Auschwitz-Birkenau had been forced to relieve their bodily functions, the discharges that human survival requires. Guards beat anyone thought to tarry too long. As I tried to fathom the horror inflicted in this place, a blur of motion startled me.
It was a hare, its head above the concrete. It pattered through the fractured earth, then vanished in the ruins. To my surprise, I was shaking. The sight of animal life only deepened my sense of transgression. What right had I to tread this ground soaked, as one of my peers lamented “in blood and ashes”?
I was at Birkenau alone. Though I had planned to spend the afternoon at Auschwitz I, something led me to take the bus one stop farther. This essay attempts to honor my experience there—three hours that I have struggled to put into words. The night after I left Poland, I tossed and turned, dreaming of a grid that stretched forever. When I awoke, I knew at once that it had been rows of chimneys.
Birkenau exposes the false premise of neutrality. I cannot, and never could, give a neutral account of being there. The anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot explains why: narratives we tell about the past are inherently implicated in the exercise of power. In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, he writes, “what history is matters less than how history works.”1 We choose to inscribe particular histories, namely those that reflect our positionalities of race, gender, class, and other facets of identity. The notion of fixed historical truth privileges one narrative while foreclosing others. “We now know that narratives are made of silences,” Trouillot writes, “not all of which are deliberate or even perceptible as such within the time of their production.”2
If I say that clergy, journalists, and doctors had to choose whether to “collaborate” with or “resist” the Nazi regime, I assume that they could have undertaken only one of two actions: one moral, one immoral. I conclude that their ethics were not already compromised, that they were not already complicit in Nazi rule. Those claims reveal as much about me as they do about my subjects. I have a stake, after all, in presupposing that collaboration and resistance excluded each other. The binary suggests that I—a white, non-Jewish man—could have chosen resistance, and thus remained without blemish. That assumption flatters me.
To be clear, professionals in the Nazi era did have to choose between good or evil. I believe that “resistance” and “collaboration” rightly describe that crossroads. But those extremes do not represent the one-time flip of a switch. People did not simply cleave to one or the other. A single decision—decrying the Nazi war effort while failing to defend one’s Jewish neighbors—betrays just this intersection. Writing about apartheid, Jacob Dlamini stresses that a “fine line” always separated resistance from collaboration.3 Was that line any thicker in the Holocaust?
To pit the two stances against each other disguises assumptions rooted in power. If I define resistance as a state of moral purity, then a “resister” must have defied the Nazi regime in no uncertain terms. Who do I take to meet that bar?
The historians Vesna Drapac and Gareth Pritchard write, “the predominant image of the resister remains individual, heroic and masculine.”4 They critique “a gendered resistance/collaboration paradigm” that predominates in scholarship about the Nazi era.5 Such a narrative only renders political acts of a public nature—those available to men who held authority—legible as resistance.
What of the choices made by women? What of the choices made by people who lacked professional status? “Any approach to the study of European society under Nazi rule that privileges the concepts of resistance and collaboration,” Drapac and Pritchard warn, “leads to misrepresentations.”6
If I remember only the men popularly regarded as exemplars of resistance, I reinscribe a dangerous politics of power. At the German Resistance Memorial Center, I learned that no one ideological, religious, or moral commitment united those who opposed the Nazi regime. Our guide ventured “incredible courage” as the only common denominator. The site itself, however, risks telling the same selective narrative.
Located in the Bendlerblock, where elite Wehrmacht officers plotted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the memorial valorizes men whose Nazi complicities ran deep. I do not deny that their resistance had integrity. Perhaps it was exemplary given how enormously Nazism had profited Hitler’s would-be assassins. But that interpretation is not innocent, especially if I take it alone. “Power is constitutive of the story,” Trouillot reminds us.7 And uncritical heroism is not the story that FASPE tells.
In June 1942, my great-grandmother and great-great grandparents resisted the Nazi regime that ruled occupied Czechoslovakia. They helped shelter the parachutists who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. My forebears paid with their lives. As their descendant, I am tempted to identify with the mantle of resistance. But it is not mine to claim.
As a white, affluent man, I exercise privileges that derive from racism and anti-Blackness. As an insatiable American consumer, I participate in neocolonial systems of exploitation. I benefit from patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, and Christian privilege. Though we do not often understand our choices today in terms of “collaboration” and “resistance,” neither category is a relic. How I understand them in relation to the Holocaust reveals whether I see them in my own life.
I had hoped, even expected, that FASPE would ground me in moral bedrock. I imagined learning principles that could guide my decisions. I had it wrong: FASPE issued a call, not a credential—the call to be and to remain troubled, to recall the horror I felt at Birkenau, to remember that I am not so far removed.
Jonathan Ort was a 2023 FASPE Seminary Fellow. He is a Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School.
- Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 2005), 28.
- Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 152-153.
- Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia (Jacana Media, 2010), 8.
- Vesna Drapac and Gareth Pritchard, “Beyond Resistance and Collaboration: Towards a Social History of Politics in Hitler’s Empire,” Journal of Social History 48, no. 4 (2015): 875, https://www-jstor-org.yale.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/43919819.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Aedb076eaca837a10087547ffc3c4bbca&ab_segments=&origin=&initiator=&acceptTC=1.
- Drapac and Pritchard, “Beyond Resistance and Collaboration,” 870.
- Drapac and Pritchard, “Beyond Resistance and Collaboration,” 865.
- Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 28.