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The Cassandra Complex

Updated: Aug 5, 2019

In Episode 4 of Season 1, I interviewed Magda Brown, a holocaust survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. There were a number of discussion points from that interview I had to leave out of the final cut of the episode. One particularly jarring exchange was when we Magda described being transported in the cattle car to Auschwitz. I asked her if she was scared and this was her response:

Clearly, one aspect of Magda not being worried about her fate is that she had no idea what was happening. Magda, and many others, believed they were being drafted as part of a work force. I will admit this was hard for me to grasp. How could they not have known? Magda explained to me how today we take for granted our understanding of the planning and logistics required of the Germans to execute the Holocaust. But at the time it was happening, no one could have fathomed the Germans were taking them to be slaughtered because who would do such a thing?

This inability to comprehend what was happening was punctuated by Magda’s story of the two Polish men who escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Hungary. When they approached the Jewish agencies in Hungary to tell them what was happening, no one would believe them. Here these men were trying to save the Jewish population of Hungary from the maelstrom headed their way and they are treated as though they are delusional.

In Greek Mythology, there is the story of Cassandra, the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy. Cassandra was known for her beauty and attracted the attention of Apollo, the god of archery, music, dance, truth telling and prophecy. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy as a love gift. However, when Cassandra refused his advances, Apollo turned her gift into a curse. She retained the ability to prophesy the future, but nobody would believe her. Cassandra prophesied the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. She was dismissed because Troy’s walls were thought to be impenetrable, hence the need for the Trojan Horse.

Cassandra’s curse highlights an interesting element of the human proclivity to dismiss dire predictions as being improbable or impossible. We seem to have trouble wrapping our minds around the most extreme possibilities until they are staring us in the face. What does it say about humans that we cannot bring ourselves to believe in these predictions, even when the prophets have seen the future with their own eyes?

I think at the root of our disbelief is a primal hope that humans, as a collective whole, would never allow something so heinous to transpire. Sure, there might be individuals who are capable of horrific acts of evil, but our expectation is that we’ll work together to stop the behavior of that one person rather than join in. The old adage that one bad apple spoils the bunch doesn’t apply because aren’t we better than fruit? Sadly, the Holocaust proves we are not.

Magda Brown (circa 1942)

The example Magda provides in her interview points out a glaring blind spot in human morality: we ignore the warning signs of coming trouble because we do not want to be reminded about our own propensity to join the aggressors rather than risking our safety to stop them. To accept the reality of what those two Polish men from Auschwitz were saying would mean taking action to stop it from going any further, which likely would come at great personal cost.

What I have found to be true in my life is that the bravery required to stop evil is connected with a willingness to face this dark place inside of ourselves. I have had many opportunities in my life to stand up against evil. In my youth, I almost always joined the aggressors or stood back and let the bullies have their way. I was never the one to stand up for the marginalized and oppressed.

As an adult, it took a confrontation of my own cowardice to realize that something had to change. I was a pastor claiming to believe in justice and equality for all people, but when push came to shove, I wouldn’t speak out. Thankfully, I am a different person today (which is a story for another post) and I have come to realize that the more you speak out against injustice, the smaller that dark place of insecurity becomes.

Now, whenever a member of my congregation tells me about an evil that has transpired in their lives or the lives of their family and friends, I always take their claim seriously and ask, “What can I do to help you make this right?” I think if we all keep asking this question, then we will be far less likely to fall into the primal hope of disbelief.

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