An amazing Holocaust story plus thoughts about the Big Bang and the human soul

Allies during WWII Hitler and the Grand MuftiHitler loved Islam.*  If you didn’t know that he loved Islam, you might think that Hitler, with his race-based obsessions, would have been hostile to a religion primarily centered on a Semitic people.  To Hitler, though, Islam was a manly religion that shared his goals:  the eradication of the Jews coupled with world domination.  That abiding respect for Islam as practiced by the world’s Muslims, led him to ally  himself closely with Muslims whenever possible:

As David Motadel writes in “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War,” Muslims fought on both sides in World War II. But only Nazis and Islamists had a political-spiritual romance. Both groups hated Jews, Bolsheviks and liberal democracy. Both sought what Michel Foucault, praising the Iranian Revolution in 1979, would later call the spiritual-political “transfiguration of the world” by “combat.”



By late 1941, Germany controlled large Muslim populations in southeastern Europe and North Africa. Nazi policy extended the grand schemes of imperial Germany toward madly modern ends. To aid the “liberation struggle of Islam,” the propaganda ministry told journalists to praise “the Islamic world as a cultural factor,” avoid criticism of Islam, and substitute “anti-Jewish” for “anti-Semitic.” In April 1942, Hitler became the first European leader to declare that Islam was “incapable of terrorism.” As usual, it is hard to tell if the Führer set the tone or merely amplified his people’s obsessions.

The above historical fact is important to know because it explains one of the most amazing Holocaust survival stories I’ve ever heard.  My learning the story came about in a peculiar way, too.  I was speaking with a friend about our memories.  His is and always has been excellent, but is failing ever so slightly with age.  Mine has always been idiosyncratic, in that I can remember anything that interests me, but have almost no success with brute force, rote memorization (explaining why I’ve never been able to master a language in a classroom).  This conversation about memory reminded my friend of the story behind his Jewish relatives’ survival in wartime Paris.

His aunt was married to a man who seems to have come from North Africa (perhaps from Alexandria or Iraq, both of which had thriving Jewish communities before they were summarily exiled following Israel’s creation).  I don’t know how the aunt and uncle met, but they ended up in Paris, which is where they were when the Nazis invaded.  Within a short time of the invasion, as the French enthusiastically fingered Jews for the Nazis’ convenience, the Nazis appeared at the home of the aunt and uncle, where they announced that they were taking the uncle away on account of his being Jewish.

“I’m not Jewish,” responded the uncle.

“Of course you are,” said the Nazis.  “Your name is Finkelstein [or whatever Jewish name the man had].”

“No,” said the uncle.  “I’m not Jewish.  I’m Muslim.”

Well, that was a shocker.  Knowing of Hitler’s affinity for Islam, the Nazis resolved that, rather than making the wrong decision and accidentally offing a Muslim, they would take the uncle to the Gestapo, and let the Gestapo sort it out.

Once at Gestapo headquarters, the uncle continued to insist that he was Muslim.

“Prove it,” said the Gestapo officer.

At which point the uncle, in the perfect cadences of the muezzin, begin reciting the Koran.  Not just a word or a phrase, but lengthy passages.

The Gestapo officer was thunderstruck.  He realized, though, that this could be a trick — the Arabic version of the same double talk that Sid Caesar later spoke so effortlessly.  He therefore had one of his minions bring him the imam from a local mosque.

When the imam arrived, the Nazi officer turned to the uncle and said, “Prove to this imam that you’re a Muslim.”

And off the uncle went again, with beautiful rhythm, tone, and feeling, reciting Koranic passages.

The imam listened, spellbound, and then turned to the Gestapo officer and said, “That’s absolutely the Koran and he is reciting it beautifully.  He must be a Muslim.”

The Jewish uncle was therefore released from Gestapo headquarters and returned to his Jewish wife in their Paris home, where they spent the remainder of the war.

How did this Jewish man convince an imam that he was a devout Muslim?  It turned out that the uncle’s childhood home somewhere in North Africa was next to a mosque.  All day long, he’d hear, not only the call to prayer, but also the muezzin reciting endless passages from the Koran.  Because the man had the plastic, absorbent mind of a child, not to mention an extremely good natural memory, he internalized what he heard and could recite it at will.  Indeed, I’m willing to guess that, before the war, he probably recited the Koran for his friends as something of a party trick, never guessing that, one day, it would save his life.

Michaelangelo hands of God and AdamI told my sister this story, and she and I wandered off into a conversation about good and evil, about creation, and about the soul.  Because we both adore our dogs, we touched upon whether animals have souls and can end up in Heaven.   She ended up agreeing with my fractured doctrine, which I’m expounding on here for what of a better place (and it’s also still fresh in my normally fractured, hazy memory).

To begin at the beginning, I believe in the Big Bang.  What I don’t believe is that the Big Bang proves that God doesn’t exist.  Indeed, I think the Big Bang makes it somewhat more likely that God does exist.  After all, something preceded the Big Bang.

Science, of course, has theories:  We’re the product of a black hole in another, pre-existing universe; or a previous universe collapsed into a black hole and, phoenix-like, rebirthed itself as us; or we’re part of an infinitely repeating loop of universes with no beginning and, presumably, no end.

No, I say!  The logic of science says that there must be a beginning, otherwise the whole “Big Bang does not equal God” argument is nothing more than a cop out.  The only exception to my demand for a rational look at a true beginning, beyond the Big Bang, would occur if there is a deity who exists independent of time or, certainly, of linear time.  This deity is, was, and always will be, world and time without end.

I’m not saying I believe in that deity  I’m only saying that this deity’s existence is just as likely, if not more likely, than the scientific guesses about the predicate to the Big Bang.  As for me, I’m okay with the unanswered question:  What preceded the Big Bang?  I don’t need an answer, and I cry foul on any scientist who, on the available data, thinks he can offer one that definitively forecloses a God.

Well, naturally the conversation has to go from God to the existence of the soul, right?  I’ve been convinced since my father died that there is more to us than our mere biochemical make-up.  It simply seemed impossible to me that the essence of Daddy, the thing that made him more than a zombie, could vanish completely when his corporeal form gave out.

Daddy’s death got me thinking about what it is that separates us from the bag of chemicals our essence inhabits.  I especially got to thinking about this when it came to the question of whether dogs have souls.  To answer that question, one needs to ask hat ingredients one needs for a soul.

My sense is that the soul requires three things:  A personality distinguishable from the body itself; existential awareness; and moral sense.  On the evidence before us, things like viruses, algae, plants, etc., probably have no personality distinguishable from their biochemistry.  Doggies and most other animals, however, do fit into the first category.

What higher forms of animal life (other than humans) do not do is fit into the second and third categories.  My dogs have no existential awareness.  They are not planning out their lives, contemplating their deaths, or wondering what their purpose on earth is.  They just are.  What they “just are” is wonderful, of course.  They’re loving, loyal, capable of learning, emotionally aware, and all sorts of wonderful things.  But they do not live outside of the moment, they do not plan for their futures, and beyond their survival instinct, they do not fear and plan for death, or question what lies beyond.

Oh, and they don’t have moral capacity.  Moral capacity means the ability to distinguish right from wrong and to embrace right as a rule for living.  When my son was small, and saw a photo of a lion dining on what once was a gazelle, my son said “Dat lion bad.”  I explained to him that the lion wasn’t bad at all.  He did what he did because that’s how a lion’s instincts guide him if he is to live.  No lion ever thinks, “You know, it’s just wrong for me to kill an innocent gazelle but, ah! What the heck!  I love killing.”

Humans, however, have what is, apparently, the unique capacity not just to act and re-act at an instinctive level but, instead, to assign moral values to their thoughts and acts.  The Bible says that God gave this ability to us and that the quality of our afterlife, whether in Heaven or upon Resurrection, rests upon our making the right moral choices.

I don’t believe in the Biblical God (see my thoughts about the deity, above), so I’m not planning for Heaven or Resurrection.  However, I do believe — very strongly — in the Bible’s teachings.  To me, its moral precepts make eminent sense insofar as they enable us to live in the most civilized, humane way possible.  (And yes, I’m enough of a secularist to believe that being civilized and humane are ends in themselves, irrespective of an afterlife.)

Also, when it comes to Biblical moral precepts, I’m hedging my bets.  My hope is that, if I’m totally wrong about this whole Biblical God thing, the Biblical God will take notice of my efforts to live within those teachings, and give me some credit in whatever afterlife or resurrection comes along.  C.S. Lewis understood this (and, maybe, taught me this).

My favorite Narnia book is The Last Battle— which is the Biblical end of the world, Narnia style. Within that book, my favorite scenes take place after the Apocalypse, when the saved are in the Narnia version of Heaven.

When the heroes and heroines of past books arrive in their Heaven, they find there a Calormene. Caloremenes are Narnian’s arch enemies and are clearly modeled on Muslims out of the Arabian nights. They reject Aslan (the Jesus figure) and instead worship Tash, an evil deity.

The Calormene’s presence in Heaven is, therefore, unexpected. It turns out, however, that the Calormene is an exceptionally honorable character who believes in Tash because he was raised to, but whose values are clearly in line with Aslan’s. Accordingly, when he arrives in Heaven, Aslan welcomes him, assuring him that all of his good acts by-passed Tash and were accorded directly to Aslan — hence his place in Heaven.

Lewis’ point, of course, is that the Christian God — Aslan or Jesus — focuses on man’s acts and is readily able to separate the wheat from the chaff. True religions encourage good behavior, but it is up to God in the afterlife to determine whether any individual actually “got it right” in terms of moral choices. God also has sufficient self-assurance to accept that some might not appear to accord him the proper respect on earth, because God looks at deep acts and beliefs, not superficial behaviors.

Yeah!  That’s the ticket!

I’m pretty much done with my existential musings here.  I’ll just add that this is probably a good time for me to recommend Robert Tracinski’s extremely thoughtful and informative article about the fact that Islam is inherently more violent than Christianity.  When I posted the article on Facebook, someone inevitably pointed to the centuries of violence that Europeans committed in the name of Christianity.  My response to him, which is probably an adequate summation of the Tracinski article, is that Christ and Christianity did not bring the sword to the Europeans; instead, Europeans, who were (and probably still are) recovering pagans, brought the sword to Christianity.  In Islam, however, the sword is prepackaged with the faith.


*If that link fails, try this one.