You should take this University Seminar if you would like to step outside your cultural comfort zone and examine experiences of survivors of concentration camps, genocide and persecution. This course will help students better understand what motivates humans to remain human under extreme moral assaults.
Extreme experiences of evil and oppression (concentration camps, prisons, mass terror, slavery and other forms of victimization) have often been presented as opportunities for unusual personal growth and spiritual ascent. From archaic initiation rites of diverse cultures, to ancient Greece and Rome, Biblical wisdom, and many other literary traditions, the point has been stressed repeatedly that being exposed to suffering and oppression not only can make us better, stronger, and more enlightened human beings but, in fact, tends to be a necessary condition of such profound ennoblement.
Is this true? Survivors of modern extreme evil (including American slavery, the Holocaust, the Soviet Gulag, Communist prisons of Eastern Europe, and Chinese mind-reform camps) ask this question while describing their own ordeals. What can we learn from them about humanity, both in general and our own? In this seminar, we will explore and discuss cultural, religious and intellectual roots of the conviction that extreme oppression can ennoble us. We will confront these traditions with survivors' writings about modern systems of oppression. In our explorations, we will ask some profound questions: What motivates human beings under extreme conditions? Are human beings good by nature? How does mass-scale evil originate in history? How do diverse cultural backgrounds affect ways in which people react to these assaults against their humanity? Our discussions will allow us to explore human experiences not directly accessible for most of us, and confront our own assumptions with discoveries of those who lived through extreme experiences. Readings include short excerpts from the Bible, Plato, Juvenal and some more recent thinkers, as well as prison/camp/slavery memoirs by Frederick Douglas, Elie Wiesel, Aleksandr Solzhenistyn, Zhang Xianliang, Eugenia Ginzburg, Varlam Shalamov, Gustaw Herling, Tadeusz Borowski. Films "Korczak" (by Andrzej Wajda), "Life is Beautiful" (by Roberto Benigni), and "Interrogation" (by Ryszard Bugajski) will be viewed outside of class and discussed in class.