The Holocaust, “survivor’s guilt” and the nature of human cruelty were addressed by former MU professor Fred Emil Katz when he spoke Monday night at Memorial Union.
Katz spoke to about 50 people about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor and his new book, “Confronting Evil: Two Journeys,” which examines how ordinary people can participate in inhumane acts, such as terrorism, in modern times.
Born to a Jewish family in Germany, Katz was put on the “Kinder transport” child rescue operation, but his parents and brother died.
“I was in denial about many things in my life, about the Holocaust, about the murder of my parents,” Katz said. “For 30 years, I read nothing about the Holocaust.”
He stopped practicing Judaism when he left Germany. In his 30s, however, Katz began to re-examine his past and identity and later visited the German village where he grew up. It triggered an interest in understanding how the atrocities of Nazi Germany, as well as crimes in other places, were able to be carried out.
“If you want to understand monstrous behavior, don’t look for monsters. It is ordinary people who are responsible,” Katz said. “A thoroughly decent human being can be recruited into participating in social horrors.”
In a lecture Monday afternoon and again in the evening, Katz described his theory that people are strongly influenced by their “local moral universe,” which can be used to justify both virtuous and violent behavior in a society.
He argued that people who commit atrocities, such as Nazis in death camps or the terrorists of Sept. 11, believe they are operating under their group’s moral standards.
“If this is frightening, it should be,” Katz said. “But it should also be assuring to know that we are not dealing with anything supernatural.”
There is hope, he said, when behavioral sciences can be used to study human atrocities with the hope of preventing them.
Some audience members who were drawn by Katz’s background were also interested in his conclusions.
“I thought it was very interesting to think about the idea that normal people can be swept up in the ‘local moral universe,’ ” Amy Damashek, who was present at the event, said. “I’m Jewish, so the fact that he’s a Holocaust survivor sparked my interest.”
Bruce Biddle, a professor emeritus of sociology at MU and a friend of Katz, was impressed.
“He’s really wrestling with very real questions,” Biddle said. “It’s not limited to the Holocaust. It’s happening again in the Sudan and many other parts of the world.”