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Winnipeg Vegetarian Association

A proud member of the International Vegetarian Union and Vegetarian Union of North America

originally published in Winnipeg Vegetarian, Spring/Summer 2002
Eternal Treblinka
Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust

By Charles Patterson

Lantern Books, 2002
Paperback, 296 pages

Reviewed by Syd Baumel

Comparing modern factory farms to Nazi concentration camps has never been an easy sell. But Holocaust scholar Charles Patterson has a slightly different spin: objectifying domesticated animals is a prep school for doing the same to people – or looking the other way while others do it for you.

Borrowing his title from a short story by the late Jewish Nobel Laureate for literature and vegetarian, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Patterson has put together a dark and dreary history of man’s inhumanity to beast and (in very close moral and behavioural proximity, Patterson suggests) inhumanity to man. 

Read the chapter on Isaac Bashevis Singer here. The book culminates with the apocalyptic expression of this us/them pathology in the form of the Holocaust, mostly through the eyes and hearts of people like Singer (who fled Poland for the US shortly before the Nazi rampage) who have found the human and animal parallels inescapable. Singer never stopped seeing the ghosts of his fellow Jews in the plight of food and research animals and even the humble house mouse. “In relation to them [mice],” thinks a Singer character whose family was exterminated by the Nazis, “all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

Not just Jews like Singer and Alex Hershaft (well-known to many vegetarians as the founder and president of Farm Animal Reform Movement [FARM], but not so well known as a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto), but conscience-stricken non-Jewish sons and daughters of Hitler’s Germany are also profiled by Patterson. They all share the same moral intuition: never again (the oft-repeated pledge of those who seek to learn from the Holocaust) applies to all the world’s persecuted innocents, not just to our fellow members of “the master species.” 

As a son of Holocaust survivors and grandson of nonsurvivors, to me such “moral equivalence” is neither a diminishment of nor an insult to the memory of the Holocaust’s human victims. Rather, as Patterson and others in Eternal Treblinka argue, the dehumanization and persecution by the Nazis of their victims should (to quote Einstein) “widen our circle of compassion” to include the dreadfully analogous mass objectification and brutalization of our fellow animals. As the German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno (quoted in Eternal Treblinka) put it: 

Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.
For excerpts from Eternal Treblinka and more reviews, visit www.powerfulbook.com

Winnipeg Vegetarian Association     Box 2721     Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada     R3C 4B3
Phone: (204)889-5789       E-mail: wva@ivu.org