“More than 50,” describes both the years of academic inquiry about the Holocaust and the number of books by John K. Roth ’62, Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. Undoubtedly one of the preeminent scholars in the field of Holocaust studies, he recently added a new book to his collection. Sources of Holocaust Insight: Learning and Teaching about the Genocide reflects on the people, the texts, the events and places that have informed and influenced his understanding of that atrocity.
Roth is founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights (now the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights) at Claremont McKenna. He was named the U.S. National Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1988. Roth is also the recipient of the Holocaust Educational Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Holocaust Studies and Research.
Pomona College Magazine’s Sneha Abraham, a former student of Roth’s, talked to him about his academic formation, his new book, questions of the human condition, God, and what the Holocaust requires of us.
This interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.
PCM: How was your Pomona experience formative for you as a philosopher? What was that experience like?
Roth: When I came to Pomona College in the autumn of 1958, I didn’t know what philosophy was. I had some experience with religion, and my father was a Presbyterian minister, so I grew up in a home where the Bible and ideas about God were important. I was aware that there was something called philosophy, but I really didn’t know very much about it. I didn’t take a course in philosophy at Pomona until I was a sophomore. When I got into it, I thought, “This is interesting. Maybe I’ll get some answers to my questions by studying philosophy.”
But I rather quickly found out that that wasn’t going to happen because philosophy is much more about questions than it is about answers. Philosophers always come up with answers, and philosophers are salespeople in some ways. They want you to accept what they say. But the power of the discipline goes back to Socrates and the use of questions to produce dialogue and develop the wonder about things that Plato and Aristotle thought was the origin of philosophy. Philosophy begins in wonder.
Over time, I grew to love that part of philosophy. Philosophy is the discipline that persists in asking questions. That can be very frustrating if your goal is to get answers. Philosophy tries to do that, but unavoidably, the questions keep coming back.
By the time I had finished my sophomore year, I was committed to majoring in philosophy. And then something else happened. And this is a tribute to Pomona College. I just loved being in college. Pomona accounts for that. I fell in love with college because of Pomona. My experience there made a huge impact on me. I’ve spent most of my life in the culture of small liberal arts colleges, which I just think are national treasures, and as I think about the condition of our country right now, I think the contributions that small liberal arts colleges make are increasingly important. And probably endangered a bit too.
PCM: You’ve been working in this field of Holocaust studies for more than 50 years.
Roth: Yes. It’s added up to be that long. And it wasn’t where I planned to work. I didn’t go to the counseling center and say, “How do you become a Holocaust scholar?” I like to say that the Holocaust found me. It did so partly through [the late Philosophy Professor] Frederick Sontag, who is a legend at Pomona and became a close, close friend of mine—we taught and wrote together. When I was his student, he was very interested in what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”
Several of the courses that I took from Fred Sontag took me into that problem—that is, how and why does massive destruction of human life take place? And what sense, if any, can be made of it? How do we deal with those questions?
But the Holocaust was not yet where I was. Getting my attention focused on that took a while. It wasn’t until I was on the faculty of Claremont McKenna, which I joined in 1966, that the Holocaust found me and changed my life.
In the early 1970s, I followed the lead of my teacher, Fred Sontag, who said one day, “I think you might be interested in reading some of Elie Wiesel’s writings.” I read Wiesel and was captivated and compelled to find out more about what I was reading. This is why I say that the Holocaust found me more than I found it. And it changed my life. I became a different person, professionally and existentially. My life reoriented because as I found out more about what had happened to people like Elie Wiesel and his family. I discovered that a host of important questions were embedded in that experience and history. I had to follow where they led.
PCM: Why did you write this book? What was the impetus?
Roth: I was inspired to write the book because of another book that has meant a lot to me over the years. It is called Sources of Holocaust Research and was written early in the current century by a very important Holocaust scholar named Raul Hilberg. I used that book in teaching because it provides a good way for students to see how a scholar goes about studying that massive event.
Hilberg’s book made me realize that I have Holocaust sources too, and that led to seeing the book that I might write. My sources are documents sometimes, but more often, my sources are people, texts, testimonies, places, experiences. So, I thought to myself, “Well, what if I write about sources of my understanding of the Holocaust?” Or as I like to phrase it, my sources of Holocaust insight.
PCM: You mentioned that you’re the son of a Presbyterian minister. How does being an American and a Christian affect your study of the Holocaust?
Roth: When I read Elie Wiesel and I began to feel the need to learn more about what had happened to him and why it happened to his family, my study made me realize that my own tradition, Christianity, was deeply implicated in the genocide. This led me to grapple with the dark underside of Christianity. It created a personal dilemma I still wrestle with.
I put the dilemma this way. For me, Christianity has been something good, but as some of my Jewish friends would remind me from time to time, and I knew this from study too, “Well, Christianity hasn’t been so good for us.” The Holocaust remains a big, big problem for Christians. You have a good example of that right now because, after many, many years, the Vatican archives have been opened to allow scholars—once we get the COVID-19 pandemic under control—to explore the controversial history of Pope Pius XII, who reigned during the Nazi period. He’s been a controversial figure. Did he do what he should have done during that period with regard to the plight of the Jewish people?
So debate about the Holocaust and Christianity is ongoing. For me, it’s existential, because Christianity is my tradition. What do I do as I keep learning that my tradition has a dark and destructive side? My study and teaching about the Holocaust is a continuing way to cope with that. And maybe in some ways, to try to make some amends, if I can, for that terrible shortcoming.
On the American side, the role of the United States during the Holocaust also raises questions. It does so about immigration; it raises questions about action that was taken or not taken. And it certainly involves issues about racism. Black Americans fought against Nazi racism but experienced American racism nonetheless. I’ve found that my identity as an American, as well as a Christian and a philosopher, continues to have points of contact with the Holocaust, which was primarily European in its geography but had international dimensions and implications too. Some of those connections and reverberations are reflected in the fact that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has become such an important place in our national capital. There’s a long story about that: Why do we have a museum about the Holocaust situated close by the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.? That’s an intriguing and significant question.
What I’ve found is that all of these identity questions drove me further and deeper in understanding that it was important to spend time teaching, learning and writing about the Holocaust.
PCM: You write about Richard Rubenstein, Elie Wiesel and Franklin Littell and how they encourage you to tell the story in your own way and to carry on the dialogue as best you can in your prayers and quarrels with God. I really liked the way you put that. What does that mean for you?
Roth: Unlike some people who confront the Holocaust, my encounters with that catastrophe have not turned me into an atheist. I resonated much more with the approach that Wiesel took in his writings. People who really fall in love with Elie Wiesel’s writings are probably people who have some deep interest in things religious because it’s hard to read Wiesel without finding, over and over again, that he’s writing about questions that have to do with God and religious practices and traditions. In particular, Wiesel is constantly carrying on a quarrel with God.
One of the things I learned as a Christian that was very helpful to me is that, in the Jewish tradition, quarreling and arguing with God and protesting against God are part of the spirituality of that tradition. Christianity tends to play down such themes because of the strong emphasis that Christianity puts on the idea of God as love. But if God is more ambiguous and mixed than that, then the Jewish tradition of carrying on arguments and protest as part of a relationship with God has a bigger role. I found I really liked that about the approach that I was discovering as I studied Wiesel, Rubenstein and other post-Holocaust Jewish thinkers.
So, I have a quarrelsome relationship with God. For me, that’s valuable just to the extent that it underscores the insight that God isn’t going to fix everything. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s up to us to try to do that as much as we can. But I hold onto a relationship with God because it helps me to maintain my conviction that history is not all that is. Reality is more than history. And I’m hopeful that, in some way, that means that what the Nazis did to the Jews doesn’t have the last word. That’s my hope. I don’t want injustice and suffering and murder to have the last word. They may have it. I don’t know for sure that they won’t, but my hope is that they don’t. My teaching and writing about the Holocaust seek to encourage and support that hope.
PCM: What is your take on the human condition? Are we basically good?
Roth: I wax and wane between hope and pessimism. I often say that my study of the Holocaust, overall, has made me more melancholy than I was as a young person. That mood isn’t the same as despair, but it includes aspects of that darkness. Melancholy isn’t paralyzing. It can combine with and even produce resistance against destructive powers.
PCM: Do you believe in moral progress?
Roth: Not in any simple way. No, I don’t. I think Albert Camus was insightful in his book The Rebel when he said that human beings can only arithmetically reduce the amount of suffering in the world. What he meant by that, I think, is that we can and must do everything we can to reduce suffering and injustice, but, unfortunately, we aren’t capable of doing away with those things. So, according to Camus, you resist, you try your best to thwart and curb and reduce these things, but if your sensibility is that you’re going to continue to make progress until such time as suffering and injustice are inconsequential, you’re misguided.
I think that the ongoing struggle against anti-semitism fits what Camus saw. Many of us who began a long time ago to teach about the Holocaust hoped that such work would curb if not eliminate anti-semitism. But we learned that this plague is more endemic and virulent than we wanted to believe.
So, I don’t believe in moral progress in any simple kind of way, but I do hope that Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That will happen, though, only if people make it happen. [During this time of pandemic,] we keep talking about the “curve” and flattening it. That curve isn’t going to bend or flatten unless people act in ways that serve the common good. Even then, as we’re learning, we’re probably not going to eradicate the novel coronavirus or the disease of racism and injustice, at least not completely.
PCM: Does the Holocaust call moral relativism on the carpet?
Roth: Yes. I have a friend, Michael Berenbaum, who wisely refers to the Holocaust as a negative absolute. We may disagree about moral values, but probably, we can come closer to agreement if we look at what we think is absolutely wrong. Even there, drastic differences may persist. The Nazis did not think that destroying Jewish life and tradition was wrong. For the Nazis, that was right and good. So it’s complicated, but as I like to say, the Holocaust was wrong, or nothing could be. If we don’t say that, then we really do open the door to the pernicious view that might makes right. Earlier this year, Attorney General William Barr emphasized that the victors write history. Even if he wasn’t incorrect factually, that proposition is morally wrong because it is the ally of might makes right, a view that cannot withstand scrutiny.
The Holocaust and events like it had better be the end of moral relativism, or we’re in more trouble than we need to be. But the dilemma is that this case of one of those where argument may not settle the matter. This is a place where my concept of insight comes in. We have to recognize that there may always be people, powerful people, who act as if might makes right and who think they will win and get to write history their way. Study of the Holocaust alerts us to have our eyes open about what to do in that case.
PCM: You say that through writer and Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo you understand the importance of taking nothing good for granted. That’s the title of your epilogue as well. So, what good do you not take for granted?
Roth: The Holocaust destroyed so much that was good. So, of all my Holocaust insights, none is more important than take nothing good for granted. Over and over again, especially privileged Americans like me do take good things for granted, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Study of the Holocaust helps to drive that point home, but nowadays the COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed awareness of systemic racism in American life lift up that awareness too.
PCM: Delbo essentially says, I’m paraphrasing, but: “Do something useful with your life. Don’t let everything be useless knowledge or senseless.”
Roth: Delbo’s moving writing about Auschwitz emphasizes how her experience there was full of what she called useless knowledge. She saw torture, and she knew about murder. None of this was edifying, let alone helpful. Such knowledge was destructive and degrading. So as she works to show her readers such things, she hopes that they won’t end up saying, “So what? You know, I’ll just put this on the shelf and go on about my life.” She was looking for somebody who would read her writing and maybe, in some good way, be changed by it. Writings that come out of Holocaust experiences are sometimes so powerful that if you let them into your life, they have a way of reorienting you and changing you. Charlotte Delbo’s writings have been that way for me
PCM: I’m not sure if this was your comment in the book or if you were quoting someone, but you wrote that “Our calling is not to be perfect, but to do what we can to make room for caring help and compassionate respect in a world that is often cruelly cold and indifferent.”
Roth: When I wrote those words, I saw them—and still do see them—as a way of putting one of the most insightful teachings from the Jewish tradition—that it is not our task to complete the work of justice, but neither is it our right to refuse to take up that work. We can’t complete the work of justice, but it’s our task to do what we can, to the best of our abilities. More than 50 years of learning and teaching about the Holocaust make that insight imperative and inescapable.