Bowling in Bratislava: Remembrance, Rosh Hashanah, Eichmann, and Arendt

In synagogue over the last two days of Rosh Hashanah, I was struck by a passage that I never really noticed in previous years. It’s from Zikhronot, the prayers or verses of remembrance in the Musaf Amidah that we recite on the holiday:

You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze;

You remember every deed, and nothing in creation can be hidden from You.

Everything is revealed and known to You, Adonai our God; You see to the end of time.

It is You who established a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.

That image of a God that remembers every being that has ever lived—and every deed that’s ever been done—since the beginning of time, reminded me of two passages in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which serve as bookends of the text.

The first has to do with Eichmann. One of Arendt’s most puzzling complaints throughout the book is that Eichmann repeatedly forgot or got wrong critical facts about his involvement in the Holocaust. She keeps coming back to his faulty memory, almost as if his forgetfulness were of equal stature with his other crimes, a crime unto itself.

She seems weirdly puzzled and even more weirdly outraged by his lapses of memory. The lapses, after all, seem perfectly explicable as convenient stories Eichmann told in order to save his life. And regardless of their explanation, don’t they pale in comparison to the mounting detail of his involvement in the mass murder of the Jews? Why is Arendt so fixated on them?

As she narrates Eichmann’s slow ascension in the Nazi chain of command, her animus for his terrible memory reaches a climax, when she recounts in chapter five his testimony to Israeli interrogators about a trip he made to Bratislava in 1942:

What he remembered was that he was there as the guest of Sano Mach, Minister of the Interior in the German-established Slovakian puppet government….Eichmann remembered this because it was unusual for him to receive social invitations from members of governments; it was an honor. Mach, as Eichmann recalled, was a nice, easygoing fellow who invited him to bowl with him. Did he really have no other business in Bratislava in the middle of the war than to go bowling with the Minister of the Interior? No, absolutely no other business; he remembered it all very well, how they bowled, and how drinks were served just before the news of the attempt on Heydrich’s life arrived. Four months and fifty-five tapes later, Captain Less, the Israeli examiner, came back to this point, and Eichmann told the same story in nearly identical words, adding that this day had been “unforgettable,” because his “superior had been assassinated.” This time, however, he was confronted with a document that said he had been sent to Bratislava to talk over “the current evacuation action against Jews from Slovakia.” He admitted his error at once: “Clear, clear, that was an order from Berlin, they did not send me there to go bowling.” Had he lied twice, with great consistency? Hardly. To evacuate and deport Jews had become routine business; what stuck in his mind was bowling…

The second passage occurs near the end of the book, in Arendt’s discussion of a German sergeant, Anton Schmidt, who gave Jewish partisans in Poland forged papers and military trucks. For five months in late 1941 and early 1942, Schmidt helped save Jews, expecting and receiving nothing in return, until he was arrested and killed by the Nazis.

Reflecting upon the power of Schmidt’s actions, Arendt points out that a critical weapon of the Nazis was to deny their opponents—and their victims—a heroic or even individual death. Where the God of the Jews remembers every being and every deed, the Nazis sought to make their victims and opponents—and all they had done during their time on earth—”disappear in silent anonymity.” Hence, the industrialized murder, followed by a near total erasure of the crimes.

But while the Nazis tried “to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear,” the Schmidt testimony revealed that “the holes of oblivion do not exist.”

Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing [including Schmidt’s good deeds] can ever be “practically useless,” at least, not in the long run.

We have here two tales: one of forgetfulness, which is an adjutant to the most heinous of crimes, if not a crime in its own right; one of recall, which is often the only helpmate goodness in this world can have. The first is the servant of evil; the second of, not godliness, but goodness. Reporting on the testimony of Schmidt’s deeds in the Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt writes:

During the few minutes it took Kovner [the witness] to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question—how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told.

And here we come back to Zikhronot. The God that remembers every person that ever existed, and every deed that was ever committed, is a God who makes goodness possible by ensuring these holes of oblivion do not exist. Arendt was no believer, but she was, I’ve argued, a deeply Jewish thinker, and in a trial in a courtroom, she found not the God of the Jews but an imperfect entity that might serve the same function: “a rite of remembrance, to take account of every being, every soul, to recall the multitude of deeds, and call to mind countless creations.”

*  *  *  *

On an unrelated note, I couldn’t help noticing a marginal note in the mazhor. In a discussion of the Aleinu, the prayer we recite at the conclusion of every service, the editors make note of an interpretation of the prayer that first arose in the 19th century. It was then, apparently, that rabbis began to argue that a passage that previously had been understood to refer to the establishment of God’s sovereignty across the earth should now be understood to refer to the injunction to repair the world. Men and women, in other words, must work to establish righteousness and justice throughout the world. Whether and how that injunction was connected to the establishment of God’s sovereignty across the earth wasn’t made clear, at least not to me. But what was clear, extraordinarily and powerfully clear, is the editors’ conclusion:

Even earlier [than during the nineteenth century], Maimonides (12th century) had argued that the single most important characteristic of God’s sovereignty would be an end to one people dominating another.


Shana Tova.


  1. Ramesh October 5, 2016 at 11:27 am | #

    Thank you. I hear similar biblical themes from Christian traditions. I was exploring your Arendt posts and was surprised to see this:

    The Trials of Hannah Arendt

    “Eichmann, however, was more than an empirical report about one man on trial. It was also a work of political theory. To understand Arendt’s approach, it helps to set her account of Jewish cooperation inEichmann against her account of total terror in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which appeared in 1951. In this earlier work, Arendt had argued that totalitarian ideologies conjured a world of perpetual motion: the movement of history, in the case of Soviet communism; the rhythms of nature, in the case of Nazism. The purpose of terror was to liberate that motion, to eliminate all friction from the human machine. Men and women were reduced to a Pavlovian minimum, offering no resistance to the forces of nature or the wheels of history. Whether hunter or hunted, predator or prey, they were repurposed to serve as the pliant materials of these ideologies. Even at the highest rungs of the regime, even at the cost of their lives: “The process may decide that those who today eliminate races and individuals or the members of dying classes and decadent peoples are tomorrow those who must be sacrificed. What totalitarian rule needs to guide the behavior of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim.”

    I have never seen a passage so dark and hopeless. Then it slowly dawned on me that this passage besides depicting the political theory of holocaust could also describe modern life in a sinister way. I see some of the dire things as Chomsky notes in the machinations of life in the world today.

    Very troubling but depicts a dark path. I understand Arendt moved away from this view.

    • Ramesh October 7, 2016 at 6:59 am | #

      I am still slowly reading through “The Trials of Hannah Arendt”. Less than half way through.

      So far, Eichmann looks normal like any american govt. employee or even any of US presidents or even Henry Kissinger if they were abducted and brought to trial for their crimes as outlined by Chomsky’s indictment against them.

      The differences being – genocide and maybe the quantity of mass murder.

      But then the crimes as outlined by Chomsky are also severe but slightly less than systematic killing of a race of people.

      The other thing I noticed how ordinary Eichmann was. I could replace him with any person in the West but for his mass machine like killings that was just a job to do. Maybe efficiently.

      THAT is the troubling part of this.

      Also what if Germans were victors in WW II. We would not be having this discussion.

      Also what if South East Asia were somehow victors, would they parade Henry Kissinger like Israel did of Eichmann.

      Lots of troubling questions and thoughts.

    • Ramesh October 7, 2016 at 7:10 am | #

      The other scary aspect being the SYSTEM or ideas and group actions as in politics are to blame for this INDIFFERENCE in wiping out OTHERS as in other race, other tribe, other nation, other state, other city, other village … The old testament has some of this. But again any invading armies have also done this.

      This is why to what Schopenhauer talks about one is also in another resonates with me. Of course this originates from the Upanishads. That has never stopped Hindus from doing the same killings.

    • Ramesh October 7, 2016 at 10:08 am | #

      BTW the above & The Trials of Hannah Arendt posts are terrific in presentation of diff arguments and so many intersecting subjects from mythology on. Fascinating though disturbing post. I can not read and process this quickly. Gets emotional. Need to pause after two to three paras and process.

    • Ramesh October 7, 2016 at 10:59 am | #


      “Arendt, Israel, and Why Jews Have So Many Rules”

      Corey writes:

      “For more than five decades, readers ofEichmann in Jerusalem have accused Hannah Arendt of being a self-hating Jew. In the current issue of The Nation, I turn that accusation on its head.Eichmann in Jerusalem, I argue, “is a Jewish text filled not only with a modernist sense of Jewish irony…but also with an implicit Decalogue, a Law and the Prophets, animating every moment of its critique.” The reaction againstEichmann in Jerusalem, on the other hand, often coming from Jews, “has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well.”

      I am slowly beginning to grasp this.

  2. Roquentin October 5, 2016 at 11:59 am | #

    I’m sure you know the text better than me, but in my reading at least, Arendt’s discussion of Bratislava in Eichmann in Jerusalem dovetails well with the overall theme that Eichmann’s paramount crime was being completely and utterly thoughtless. I don’t think the lying part is of any major importance, to her or otherwise. For him, what really mattered was that he got to rub elbows with other high ranking Nazis, the only thing he ever really gave a shit about. His intentions and his dishonesty don’t matter much and never did. They weren’t the decisive factor in his participation. It was his crude status seeking, desire to be somebody, his willingness to drink the Kool Aid and repeat whatever vicious cant was necessary to get there.

    Eichmann in Jerusalem is forever fused in my mind with the documentary The Act of Killing, which covers the mass killings under Suharto in Indonesia, because I read/watched them around the same time. Anwar Cogo, the main subject of the documentary, is like a subsequent version of Eichmann. Just as banal, just as concerned with status, and perhaps even more delusional about the nature of what he did.

    And just as an aside, I don’t personally subscribe to the idea of God, not even in a Spinozist sense as the ultimate guarantor of all that is, was, or ever will be. Eventually everything slides into the abyss of nothingness with no one to remember it. Humanity itself has existed for a shockingly short time on the surface of the Earth. Any and all events will eventually fade into the ether, good, bad, ugly, or evil.

  3. s. wallerstein October 5, 2016 at 6:09 pm | #

    Professor Robin,

    Are you a believing Jew or do you just attend synagogue for family reasons or/and tradition, etc.?

    If you’ve already explained your religious beliefs in a previous post, maybe you can link to that.

  4. John Padmore October 5, 2016 at 7:31 pm | #

    This is a probably a naive comment but how can a religion so profoundly address the need for humanity to embrace empathy and simple morality for its own survival be so poorly understood or practiced in its homeland, Israel?

  5. Dan Knauss October 6, 2016 at 3:18 pm | #

    Americans and Christians have the same problem. Worse than ignorance, humans are all capable of a willful ignorance that somehow disconnects what they know and claim to believe from what they do. Probably because when you have the chance to be the hammer, why not? Leave it on the table, someone else will take it up. Worse, order seems deeply at odds with justice. Plato understood that doing violence to others, whatever the reason, always harms and disorders the psyche. But at the same time, the survival of the social order seems to depend on responding to aggression likewise.

  6. Carolyn Doric December 9, 2016 at 6:13 pm | #

    Professor Robin, where did you go? It’s OK, you’re about. And I’ve found a lot of good articles over the past month about the dangers that lie ahead, many people who are bringing back into Memory what we should never have forgotten. So, because our rulers do not value Remembrance, we are tasked in our times to bear witness. I think about the spiritual implications of this piece a good bit, and draw comfort from it. I know, theology wasn’t the point. Still.

Leave a Reply