Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust
Charles Patterson, Ph.D.
New York: Lantern Books, 2002. 312 pp. $20
by Richard H. Schwartz
When I first learned that Charles
Patterson was going to write a book about "our treatment of animals and the
Holocaust," I had some misgivings. I was aware that some animal rights advocates
had made superficial, misleading comparisons between the treatment of animals
on factory farms and the treatment of Jews and others in the Holocaust, and I
knew that this had hurt the vegetarian/animal rights cause by giving people an
excuse to avoid considering the many negative effects of animal-based diets. However,
I was an early endorser of Patterson's project because I felt that we needed new,
creative ways to alert people to the horrors of modern intensive livestock agriculture,
and my knowledge of his character, sensitivity, and background convinced me that
he would be an ideal person for this project.
first book -- Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond -- received
much acclaim. Judaica Book News stated, "It deserves a place in every home,
school and public library...excellent background reading in Jewish history and
the history of western civilization." He is a Holocaust educator with a certificate
from the Yad Vashem Institute for Holocaust Education in Jerusalem, who has reviewed
books and films for 18 years for Martyrdom and Resistance, a publication
of the International Society of Yad Vashem (Israel's Center for Holocaust studies).
Patterson reviewed major histories of the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer and Martin
Gilbert and Holocaust films such as "The Partisans of Vilna" and "The
Wannsee Conference." His review essay--"Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka"--was
included in A Legacy Recorded: An Anthology of Martyrdom and Resistance
(Harvey Rosenfeld and Eli Zborowski, editors), a book that is dedicated to "the
survivors of the Holocaust, whose Spirit and Soul are embodied in this book."
Now that I have read the completed book, I feel that my confidence
in his ability to sensitively carry out this project was well placed. The book
is very well researched (with almost 700 end notes), and it is written with great
sensitivity and compassion. Eternal Treblinka does not equate animals and people.
Rather, it shows how the frequent vilification of people as rats, vermin, pigs,
insects, beasts, monkeys, etc., dehumanizes people and makes it easier to oppress,
enslave, and murder them. He documents many examples of this process, relating
it to the treatment of slaves, native American Indians, Japanese people during
World War II, Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, and other examples.
book carefully shows how the enslavement ("domestication") of animals
became the model and inspiration for all the oppressions that followed. In particular.
he documents a trail from slaughterhouse production lines to Henry Ford's assembly
lines for the mass production of automobiles to Hitler's methods in the extermination
of Jews during the Holocaust. He also discusses the myth of Hitler's "vegetarianism"--his
diet of little or no meat he often followed to reduce his chronic health problems
Throughout the book, Patterson is sensitive to the views of Holocaust survivors.
Lucy Kaplan, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has contributed an eloquent
Foreword. An entire chapter profiles animal advocates who are Holocaust survivors,
children or grandchildren of survivors, people who lost relatives in the Holocaust,
and those who have given thought to the lessons of the Holocaust. Another chapter,
"The Other Side of the Holocaust," discusses German and German-American
animal advocates who began their lives in Nazi Germany. There is also a chapter
on the exploitation and slaughter of animals as a major theme in the writings
of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-91), many of
whose characters were Holocaust survivors. The title of the book comes from a
statement by one of Singer's characters: "...for the animals, it is an eternal
This book has helped me understand how the
exploitation and oppression of animals has been a major part of human history
and how the degradation of humans by vilifying them as animals has justified horrific
treatment of people. It has inspired me to try to increase my efforts to promote
vegetarianism and animal rights. Patterson's extensive and positive discussion
of Jewish teachings about tsa'ar ba1alei chayim, the Torah mandate to avoid
causing "sorrow to living creatures," is very welcome.
problem is that in the opening chapter Patterson states that some historians and
environmentalists blame the Genesis verse, in which God grants people dominion
over the earth, for western civilization's destruction and despoliation of the
environment. By failing to mention traditional Jewish interpretations of this
verse that define dominion as responsible stewardship rather than as domination,
he may leave the mistaken impression that the exploitation of animals and the
environment is religiously sanctioned. To his credit, once alerted to this omission,
the author has agreed to correct the matter in future editions of the book and
has added my article giving traditional Jewish sources on this issue to the book's
web site (http://www.powerfulbook.com/overview).
The biblical teaching that humans are granted dominion over
animals does not give people a warrant to wantonly exploit animals. It certainly
does not permit us to breed animals and then treat them as machines designed solely
to meet human needs. Jewish tradition interprets "dominion" as guardianship,
or stewardship: we are called upon to be co-workers with God in improving the
world. This view is reinforced by the fact that immediately after God gave humankind
dominion over animals (Genesis 1:26), He prescribed vegetarian foods as the diet
best suited to humans (Genesis 1:29). This mandate is almost immediately followed
by God's declaration that all of Creation was "very good" (Genesis 1:31).
Perhaps this indicates that Adam and Eve's original vegetarian diet was consistent
with the stewardship that God entrusted to them and to all humanity. Another indication
of the true interpretation of dominion is the Torah verse that states that God
put Adam, the first human being, into the Garden of Eden to "work it and
to guard it." (Genesis 2:15)
While not discussed in this
book, a second error of some animal activists (as well as those who exploit animals)
is the presumption that the biblical teaching that only people are created in
the Divine Image means that God places little or no value on animals. While the
Torah does state that only human beings are created "in the Divine Image"
(Genesis 5:1), it also makes it clear that animals are also God's creatures, possessing
sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. God is concerned that they are
protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, the Jewish sages state
that to be "created in the Divine Image," means that people have the
capacity to emulate the Divine compassion for all creatures. "As God is compassionate,"
they teach, "so you should be compassionate." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,
a leading 19th century Jewish thinker, discusses this concept: "You can know
God only through His acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called
upon to act with love and justice." Concerning the biblical concept that
human beings were created to "serve and safeguard the earth" (Genesis
2:15), Rabbi Hirsch states that this actually limits our rights over other living
creatures. He writes: "The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have
been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth,
and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creatures' to be respected,
loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God's will....To this end,
your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere
in Creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature." So, as
the Lord is our shepherd, we are to be shepherds of voiceless creatures. As God
is kind and compassionate to us, we must be considerate of the needs and feelings
Thus, when properly conceived, these biblical
verses actually endorse the struggle to improve conditions for animals. If only
they and other Jewish teachings on compassion to animals were correctly understood
and applied, it would have prevented the many examples of human and animal abuses
that Patterson so cogently considers.
The connections between
the mentality and methods behind the oppression of animals and the oppression
of human beings that are documented in this important and timely book have great
potential to stir Jews (and others) to start to apply these verses in Genesis
and other Jewish teachings on the proper treatment of animals, and thereby to
help shift the world from its present perilous, inhumane path. I hope that Eternal
Treblinka will be widely read, that its message will be extensively applied for
the benefit of both humans and animals, and that it will help lead to that day
when, in the words of Isaiah (11:6), "no one shall hurt nor destroy in all
of God's Holy mountain."