Xenophobia, defined as the fear and hatred of foreigners or strangers, has long been a tragic aspect of human society. On May 17th 1954 the Supreme Court declared that separate is inherently unequal. In this decision the highest court affirmed that segregation of people according to ethnic, racial and religious divisions is inherently discriminatory. Groups of people have, throughout history, sought to identify themselves according to such divisions and have also classified themselves according to what groups they do not belong to. This xenophobia has led to countless acts of discrimination, segregation, racism and outright genocide. The theme of xenophobia conceptually links the novels Survival at Auschwitz and Sitt Marie Rose. In these works both the oppressors and the oppressed define themselves according demographic divisions in which hatred of the “other” becomes a motivating force. This system of classification in both novels only leads to an entrenchment of divisions and allows for the tragic escalation of misunderstanding and violence.
On January 20th 1942 at a well appointed mansion in Germany several high ranking Nazi officials gathered in what would be forever known as the Wannsee Conference. The purpose of the conference was the decision of what would be done with the millions of Jews and other “undesirable” elements living in Germany and German occupied territory. Armed with facts and figures gathered by Adolph Eichmann, the Nazis’ resident “Jewish Expert,” these men blithely set into motion the most notorious and tragic act of mass murder in history. The “Final Solution” was based, at its ideological core, on rigid divisions of identity. The Nazis sought to purify and separate the Aryan race from other races, particularly Jews. In the meticulously kept minutes of the meeting are census tallies of Jews living in every country of Europe. In addition the conference discussed the exact dividing line between what they deemed Jewish and German; those of mixed blood would be classified as either category based on the percentage of Jewish or German heritage, which is unique because it was an example of a rigid division established by a government between a central group and the “other.”
The consequences of Nazi xenophobia are found throughout Survival at Auschwitz. “We had soon learned that the guests of the lager are divided into three categories; the criminals, the politicals and the Jews. All are clothed in stripes, all are Haftlinge, but the criminals wear a green triangle next to the number sewn on the jacket; the politicals wear a red triangle and the Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish star, red and yellow. (Levi 33)” Within the camps the division and treatment of prisoners is based, according to a prisoner’s identity, on strictly defined guidelines. The lager is also divided geographically by this system of classification. The blocks of Jews are kept separate from those of German prisoners. Because of this system of division, the institutionalized hatred of the Nazis is augmented by discrimination among the prisoners themselves. Non-Jewish prisoners, for example, are given positions of power in the camp and are not subject to the selections, facts which allow them to treat the Jews as badly as the SS and guards do.
In Sitt Marie Rose a similar system of geographic isolation of Christians and Muslims in Beirut is discussed. “One could even say that Beirut is divided by a line running from north to south, with the essentially Moslem quarters to the west, and the Christian quarters to the east, while here and there, especially along the waterfront there is a sort of no-man’s land of tourism and prostitution. (Adnan 9-10)” This physical division of people is significant in both novels because it is an obvious way of classifying one’s own group and that of the other. Prisoners in the lager are forced to wear different symbols and live in different blocks in order to keep them separate and at odds with each other. Such physical classification underscores the arbitrary nature of rigid demographic division. In the 1940’s Europeans, both Jews and other groups were by and large white people and the Nazis actually had to implement physically divisive policies just to make clear who belonged to which group.
Sitt Marie Rose emphasizes the absurdity of such physical divisions among human beings when she discusses the common ancestry of the Lebanese and Palestinians. “I don’t consider the Palestinians an enemy. They belong to the same ancestral heritage the Christian party does. They’re really our brothers. (Adnan 54)” The common ancestry that Marie Rose refers to is the fact that the Lebanese and the Palestinians are all Arabs. Marie Rose consistently emphasizes this common ground between both parties in the war.
In addition to common ethnicity there are many historical similarities shared by the Lebanese and Palestinians. For example both nations were European colonies; Palestine was a possession of the British for many years until it was became the state of Israel while Lebanon was held by the French. Because both nations were colonies, there is a strong identification with European culture that pervades the novel. Both nations are also home to Christians and Muslims, religions that themselves share many common features and historical origins.
Based on her recognition of the common ground between Lebanese and Palestinians Marie Rose seeks to transcend rigid definitions of identity. Marie Rose is a Christian but works with the Muslims and has taken a Palestinian for a lover. She defies the definitions of women’s roles held by the militia men; “Marie Rose frightens them. They have all the means in the world to crush her in a second, to subject her to all forms of disgrace; to throw her, cut into pieces, onto the sidewalk, and register her name in the bulletins of victory. But they’ve known from the beginning that they wouldn’t be able to conquer either her heart or her mind. The more she spoke to them of love, the more they are afraid. (Adnan 68)” The militia men are motivated by their xenophobia and their rigid definition of just who and what comprises the “other.” Marie Rose is a threat to their very ideology; Mounir reflects on the exact nature of this threat, “Here, everything became vague, he lost his footing. Because in this country there were too many factions, too many currents of ideas, too many individual cases for one theory to contain. Like the presence of this woman, who should, according to the norms, be a part of his clan, his flesh and blood. He wanted to construct a country where this problem could not exist. (Adnan 75)” It is Sitt Marie Rose’s insistence on transcending divisions that ultimately leads to her death.
In Survival at Auschwitz there is no such transcendental figure or force, there is only division. From the very beginning of the novel, people are classified according to religion, nationality, language and physical appearance. Levi states from the outset that he is an “Italian citizen of Jewish race.” He discusses the various languages that are spoken and compares the lager to the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately because of the ever present physical reality of extreme suffering there is no chance for the characters of the novel to rise out of their near stupor and transcend the brutally enforced divisions. Instead in the lager the divisions become so total that a person is effectively isolated into a category of one and the “other” becomes every other prisoner who would steal one’s clothing or eat one’s bread. The fear and superstition created by the gassing selections is the epitome of this xenophobia. “The young tell the young that the old ones will be chosen. The healthy tell the healthy that only the ill will be chosen. Specialists will be excluded. German Jews will be excluded. Low numbers will be excluded. You will be chosen. I will be excluded. (Levi 126)” In a desperation of fear the Jews facing selection in Auschwitz turn their gaze to all around them as the “other” who is subject to gassing while they are not.
The common tragedy of both Sitt Marie Rose and Survival at Auschwitz is just how much the inhabitants of each war-torn hell have in common with each other. In Sitt Marie Rose the greatest common thread between the Lebanese and Palestinians is the post colonial experience. The crisis of identity in the Middle East and the divisions it has spawned among the groups there is the result of centuries of occupation and war. As Professor Diamond pointed out, occupation by foreign powers blurred any sense of national, religious and ethnic identity. All nations of the Middle East share this experience and could, as emphasized by Marie Rose, help one another to heal. Instead the xenophobia imported by Europeans has only imposed an ideology where all seek to first identify themselves with one rigidly defined group and then to oppress and eradicate the “other.” Men attempt to dominate women, Christians, Muslims and Jews fight one another and even different sects of each individual religions fight, as we see today in Iraq between the Shiite majority and Sunni insurgents. In Survival at Auschwitz we see the nightmare reality of xenophobia and genocide as institutionalized policies. Man’s fear and hatred of the other created, in Auschwitz a world in which every other human being was a potential enemy to be feared and conquered, which destroyed among the Jewish prisoners any sense of identity with one another based on their common religion and experience as prisoners.
In defiance of the militia men’s xenophobia Sitt Marie Rose, near death, declares that Christians who seek to destroy others lose the right to call themselves Christians; “Christ only exists when one stands up against one’s own brothers to defend the Stranger. Only then does Christ embody innocence. (Adnan 104)” Xenophobia is anathema to civilization. Human beings are, by nature, social organisms and seek to work together for mutual benefit and happiness. However, differences of all kinds between people are unavoidable and there will always be groups to which each of us does not belong. While we may instinctively view those who we do not understand with mistrust, it is vital to realize that human beings have more in common with each other throughout the world then they don’t. The principle message of Sitt Marie Rose and Survival at Auschwitz is that common ground must be emphasized between human beings and no one group should ever regard itself as rigidly defined and superior to any other.
Adnan, Etel. Stitt Marie Rose. Post Apollo Press.
Levi, Primo. Survival at Auschwtiz. Collier Press.