Book Review

Eternal Treblinka:
Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust

By Dr. Charles Patterson

$20 from Lantern Books, 2002
1-800-758-3756 *
ISBN: 1-930051-99-9

Reviewed by Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

In memory of the Cypress hens in Florida and Georgia, who were caged, starved, and gassed to death. "“his is best for the chickens.” – Leroy Coffman, Florida state veterinarian. March 10, 2002

Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they're only animals.
– Theodor Adorno
Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust

Parallels between our treatment of nonhuman animals and humans considered to be less than human is what this harrowing book is about. To view such parallels as an insult to humankind merely illustrates its thesis. In her Forward, attorney Lucy Rosen Kaplan says that Eternal Treblinka should be read by all who are not afraid to understand that the suffering that humans have so relentlessly inflicted on animals over the course of our species' history is one and the same with the suffering we so often inflict on each other. Eternal Treblinka should also be read by those who shy away from this thesis.

One of the values of Eternal Treblinka is that it places the Nazi Holocaust within a larger psychological and historical context. It isn't only modern capitalist society that commits the atrocities it depicts, although our society could hardly be topped. As Animal Liberation Front founder, Ron Lee, says in the book, "We have been at war with the other creatures of this earth ever since the first human hunter set forth with spear into the primeval forest. . . . Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us even than sexism, and that is deep enough."

Treblinka was a Nazi death camp in Poland that began operating in 1942. The title, Eternal Treblinka, is taken from the meditations of Herman Gombiner, the main character in the Nobel Prizewinning author Isaac Bashevis Singer's story, "The Letter Writer." Herman, who lost his entire family to the Nazis, is thinking about a mouse he befriended whose death he believes he caused, and his sadness leads to a larger thought: "What do they know—all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world—about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka."

Eternal Treblinka presents theories from various thinkers including Freud, Montaigne, Carl Sagan, Judy Chicago, and Barbara Ehrenreich on the human penchant for war, violence, and the subjugation of other forms of existence. It looks at traditional methods of subduing animals in pastoral cultures, noting that "[c]astration continues to be the centerpiece of animal husbandry." And like the infamous 20th-century psychologist Harry Harlow, who devised experiments to induce terror in young monkeys and pathologic aggression in their mothers, herders around the world separate mother cows from their young by cruel and painful means: "The Nuer tie a ring with thorns around the calf's muzzle, which pricks the mother's udder. . . . Lapps smear excrement on the udders of reindeer does in order to keep their fawns from sucking them." The Tuareg "pierce the nasal septum of the calves with a forked stick that makes sucking painful." They "cut the noses of camel and cattle calves to keep them from sucking their mothers."

Eternal Treblinka looks at how we use language to vilify nonhuman animals, who in turn are invoked to justify our vilification of other human beings. According to Patterson, the "designation of the people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas as 'beasts,' 'brutes,' and 'savages' raised the level of murderousness" towards them. In the 16th century, the English denounced the Hottentots in Africa as traveling in "'heardes' like their animals" and seeming to "cackle like hens or turkeis," which made it right and "necessary" to torture, kill, and enslave them. The voluminous record of hatred expressed by the Europeans for the nonEuropeans they encountered in the 16th through the 19th centuries, America's obsession with brain size as the measure of intelligence in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ubiquitous and iniquitous concept of "lower animals"—all this fits neatly into packages of ideas like that of the American psychologist and educator Granville Stanley Hall, who declared at the turn of the 20th century: "We are summoned to rise above morals and clear the world's stage for the survival of those who are fittest because strongest." (Lest we think such talk is out of date, several times in the past 3 months, radio talk show hosts have asked me on the air why "the survival of the fittest" shouldn't determine how we treat other creatures; a modern code phrase is "top of the food chain.")

Readers may be surprised to learn that the author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, wrote in the late 19th century that "[t]he Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are Masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians." Or that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's father, a Harvard professor, wrote that Native Americans were the "red-crayon sketch" of manhood on a canvas "ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God's own image." Or that the assembly-line idea came from the Chicago Stockyards so admired by Henry Ford, who adapted the stockyard principle to the manufacture of cars. Or that Ford published anti-Semitic tracts that fueled pogroms against Jewish communities in Russia and inspired Hitler, who kept a life-sized portrait of Ford in his office and praised Ford in Mein Kampf.

Eternal Treblinka documents America's support for Nazi (and global) eugenics—"the science of the improvement of the human race by breeding," in the words of poultry researcher and human eugenicist Charles B. Davenport. Foundations like Rockefeller provided extensive financial support. "Learned" American men, whom Patterson represents in short fascinating portraits, and from whose writings he quotes significant excerpts, visited German racial hygiene institutes and wrote fulsomely about the "clean, virile, genius-bearing [Nordic] blood, streaming down the ages through the unerring action of heredity" sweeping us on to "higher and nobler destinies." In America, compulsory sterilization and castration were used to punish criminals, prevent further crime, and conquer imbecility. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1927, the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination and serving in the armed forces "is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes."

American and German eugenics is an offshoot of farmed animal science. Charles B. Davenport, a chicken researcher and member of the American Breeders' Association, was the director of the Eugenics Record Office established in 1910 on Long Island; his colleague, Harry H. Laughlin, was also a chicken breeding experimenter, as was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Other high-ranking Nazis translated the language and procedures of farm animal experiments into human improvement and annihilation programs designed to "eliminate inferior blood," "free people from the burden of the mentally ill," "lure victims into gas chambers, kill them on an assembly line, and process their corpses."

Patterson shows how human concentration and killing centers are virtually identical to farmed animal concentration and killing centers. Tubes into which cows and pigs are driven single-file to their deaths are no different from the tubes at Treblinka and elsewhere that led from the disrobing rooms to the gas chambers, down which naked people were driven by guards using their fists, whips, and rifle butts—which is how we treat millions of farmed animals everyday. The SS called its tube leading to the death center the "Road to Heaven," but, Patterson asks, how does their mockery differ from meat industry scientist, Temple Grandin, who calls the tube she designed for driving cattle to their death the "Stairway to Heaven"?

Some will say that treating creatures badly in order to eat them is a far cry from treating creatures badly simply because you hate them, but a key point of Eternal Treblinka is that the psychology of contempt for "inferior life" links the Nazi mentality to that which allows us to torture and kill billions of nonhuman animals and human beings with no more concern for them and their suffering than Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb feel for their victims apart from the pleasure they derive from the taste of their victims' pain in The Silence of the Lambs. That book says that the plight of the lambs screaming in the slaughterhouses—the whole human enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and murder—"will not end, ever."

Eternal Treblinka reminds us of all those other slaughterhouses that were running alongside the human ones—the "[a]round-the-clock killing and butchering" conducted at Treblinka, Auschwitz, in Dresden, and elsewhere. In their diaries and letters, Nazi officials dwell on their meals. One writes to his wife: "The sight of the dead—including women and children—is not very cheering. Once the cold weather sets in you'll be getting a goose now and again. There are over 200 chattering around here, as well as cows, calves, pigs, hens and turkeys. We live like princes. Today, Sunday, we had roast goose (1/4 each). This evening we are having pigeon."

It's been said that if most people had direct contact with the animals they consume, vegetarianism would soar, but history has yet to support this hope. It isn't just the Nazis who could see birds in the yard, slaughter them and eat them without a qualm, and in fact with euphoria. In this respect, the persecuted Jewish communities were no different from their persecutors. In the chapter entitled "This Boundless Slaughterhouse," we see the Jewish communities of Poland through the eyes of Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), who grew up in a Polish village, where his father was a Hasidic rabbi, before emigrating to America in 1935. In story after story, Singer describes the slaughtering of animals he witnessed in the village courtyards. In Warsaw, people brought chickens, ducks, and geese to be slaughtered. "The butchers began to pluck their feathers even while those creatures were still alive and wallowing in their own blood. . . Women push forward each with her fowl to be killed. Porters load baskets with dead birds and carry them off to the pluckers. This hell made mockery of all blather about humanism."

Growing up, Singer sought to understand the endless bloodbaths that others took in stride, and worse. He writes: "I had studied in the book of Leviticus about the sacrifices the priests used to burn on the altar: the sheep, the rams, the goats, and the doves whose heads they wrung off and whose blood they sprung as a sweet savor unto the Lord. And again and again I asked myself why should God, the Creator of all men and all creatures, enjoy such horrors?" In New York City, Singer decided—"A combination of a slaughterhouse, a bordello, and an insane asylum—that's what the world really is."

In Eternal Treblinka chickens and pigs shriek as they are being cursed and butchered. Nazis bear their souls in their letters and diaries. We read the opposing testimony of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. The artist Sue Coe's descriptions of the slaughterhouses she visited are excruciating: if people can read her account and continue to eat animals and drink their babies' milk, what hope is there? A question that is raised over and over by those who became vegetarians rather than perpetuate the legacy of butchery in their own lives, is "How can 'we' do to 'them' what was done to 'us' and not even recognize it?" Because this book shows, in the words of Albert Kaplan, that so far "we have learned nothing from the Holocaust."

Christa Blanke, a former Lutheran pastor in Germany and founder of the organization Animals' Angels, cites a link between how we treat animals and Nazism. First we strip the animals of their dignity—"The degradation of the victim always precedes a murder." But, we want to know, why do humans want to degrade and kill? According to Blanke, "because cruelty and greed always seem to get the upper hand." But why? Serial killer Ted Bundy said it wasn't that he had no feelings of remorse towards his victims but that those feelings were weak and ephemeral compared to his rapacious emotions and drives. Naturalist John Muir wrote that the people he knew enjoyed seeing the passenger pigeons fill the sky, but they liked shooting and eating them more—"every gun was aimed at them."

Eternal Treblinka thus raises questions, and we long for answers. Why, in the words of Albert Kaplan, are the majority of Holocaust survivors "no more concerned about animals' suffering than were the Germans concerned about Jews' suffering?" Isaac Bashevis Singer says we pretend animals don't feel in order to justify our cruelty, but why do we want to be cruel to animals? Is comfort with cruelty, taking pleasure in cruelty, a trait that we carry from our past as part of our genetic survival kit? Why, when we have the technology to duplicate animal products with textured vegetable protein, do people continue to insist they have to have "meat"? Why do we praise technology for developing substitutes for cruder practices in other areas of life while balking at its use to eliminate slaughterhouses, which technology can do? Has Isaac Bashevis Singer's philosophic vegetarianism had any effect on modern mainstream Jewish ideas and lifestyle? And if not, why not? This is not to suggest that the Jewish community should be expected to rise above the rest of humankind, but that the Jewish response raises questions about our species no less than does Nazism.

Eternal Treblinka traces an attitude, the work of a base will, that the Hitler era epitomized. It is the attitude that we can do whatever we please, however vicious, if we can get away with it, because "we" are superior, and "they," whoever they are, are, so to speak, "just chickens." Isaac Bashevis Singer rejected this attitude and the behavior that goes with it. The New York Times Book Review wrote of him when he died, "He shied from chicken soup and became a devoted vegetarian. From childhood on he had seen that might makes right, that man is stronger than chicken—man eats chicken, not visa versa. That bothered him, for there was no evidence that people were more important than chickens. When he lectured on life and literature there were often dinners in his honor, and sympathetic hosts served vegetarian meals. 'So, in a very small way, I do a favor for the chickens,' Singer said. 'If I will ever get a monument, chickens will do it for me.'"

Like Singer's collected works, Eternal Treblinka is what Singer called "a deep protest against the killing and torturing of the helpless." It says No to blaming God, Nature, and Original Sin for the atrocities we choose to commit against our fellow creatures, forcing humans and hens together into gas chambers and calling it a humane solution. In conclusion, Patterson writes that "the sooner we put an end to our cruel and violent way of life, the better it will be for all of us—perpetrators, bystanders, and victims." Who but the Nazi within us disagrees? If we're going to mass murder someone, let it be him.