Folk Theodicy in Concentration Camps: Literary Representations

In: Knowledge and Pain

Literary works, whether memoiristic or fictional, written by survivors of concentration camps frequently represent attempts by prisoners to explain the metaphysical meaning of their suffering in order to preserve their religious beliefs or their religiously held social ideology. This ‘folk theodicy’ (a term coined by analogy with ‘folk etymology’ and ‘folk psychology’) is an epiphenomenon of suffering and a strategy for orientation in the midst of a religious or ideological crisis. Its traditional forms, such as belief in punitive justice or in service of remote goals, break down when the suffering to which it responds is particularly prolonged and acute. Folk theology is then either relinquished along with faith itself or else reversed: the God that failed is imagined as helpless and suffering. While the literary records of the folk theology of Holocaust victims can provide a conceptual framework for redescribing the conduct of communist true believers in the Gulag, Gulag literature can shed light on the mechanics of deconversion, that is on the factors that led up to the loss of faith. Whereas neither counterarguments nor their own unjustly inflicted suffering could shake religiously held communist beliefs, such beliefs were, apparently, irreparably damaged by the almost visceral experience of moral disgust. It stands to reason that a similar sense of disgust with the world in which the Nazi atrocities could unfold was the cause of the loss of religious beliefs among some of the victims or at least the cause of the renunciation of the practices associated with religious beliefs.

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