Thursday, September 29, 2016

Chapter Nine

“So isn’t this story supposed to be about a Polish archbishop,” asked Lady, “but all I seem to be getting is the long, involved story of a pianist? What’s up?”

“What’s up, indeed,” I told her. “I had no idea that I’d have to grapple with the most serious event of the last century. Though really, historically, I didn’t have to. Wesolowski was actually born a few years after World War II; I suppose I could skip the thing entirely, if I wanted….”

“Well, why drag it in?”

“You have a point,” I said. “The Holocaust was horrific, make no mistake about it. And from a writer’s point of view, it’s both a fertile minefield and an absolute swamp. I mean, after you get done detailing the horrors of Auschwitz, what else has the heft, the weight? The swinging 60’s? Rock ‘n Roll? No, for a novelist, the slogan over the gates to Auschwitz isn’t ‘Arbeit Macht Frei, or ‘Work Makes You Free,’ but rather ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’ Though come to think of it, ‘Abandon Hope’ was also a lot more appropriate for all those Jews, dissidents, Communists, Gays and Gypsies than ‘Arbeit…..’”

“Dissidents, Communists, Gays and Gypsies?”

“They got herded up as well. Oh, and the mentally defective. But there’s no denying the suffering of the Jews, and the fact that it really was intended to be the actual extermination of an entire people. Oh, and the top Nazis were quite clear—if they could make it happen, they could also ensure that it would never be known. An entire people wiped out, and no mention made. A page lost to history. Or rather, a chapter, or one of its many tomes….”

“Did they think they could get away with it?”

“Why not? To my mind, it’s extraordinary what they did get away with. And still are, in fact. Has anyone ever talked about complicity? Let’s start with the Germans, though the same could be said with any of the populations—Poles, Czechs, Austrians—who had concentration camps built around them. Look, let’s face it: everybody knew. It was no secret: here’s Wikipedia on the subject:”

The press announcement said that "the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5,000 persons. All Communists and – where necessary – Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated there, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons."[10] Dachau was the first regular concentration camp established by the German coalition government of National Socialist Workers' Party (Nazi Party) and the Nationalist People's Party (dissolved on 6 July 1933). Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police of Munich, officially described the camp as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners."[10]  

“Press announcements? Official statements by Himmler?”

“Right—it was no secret. True, to my knowledge, no Nazi came out and said that they were gassing Jews. No, it was the old story: there was a real fear of Communists, and Hitler used that fear. So once it became OK to throw the ‘political prisoners’ into a camp, then it was easier to start down the list of public prejudice. Gay people, or as they were known, sexual deviants. Do you want those around your kids? And what about mentally retarded, or developmentally disabled, or intellectually challenged, or whatever I’m supposed to call them this year? Anyway, do you really want them to be having children? And then the Gypsies—well, they were thieves, most of them! Or so the story went, and that was the point. And it was a reign of terror, at that point, because Hitler very quickly squelched dissent. So it’s easy for me to say that I’d write a blistering post in my blog if anyone built a concentration camp in neighboring Cataño….”

“…come to think of it….”

“Please stifle that thought,” I told her.

“I didn’t mean that there should be one, only that in fact it is one….”

“Here’s the point—if I write about it, will anything happen to me? My Cuban boss once put it neatly: if you can hear footsteps at 3 AM outside your house, and then roll over and go back to sleep, well, you live in a free society. But what if you can’t? What if you’ve packed your bag, put it next to the back door, and planned in whose house you would seek shelter? And what about your wife, your children? The baby? Surely they will be safe: it’s only you they seek…. Or is it? Because your wife, too—well, at university she attended some meetings. She signed some petitions. And so the baby will come too, and you’d better hope she’s sleeping soundly, as you scuttle down the streets to your safe house….”

“Marc, that’s ghastly….”

“Absolutely. So in Nazi Germany you had an entire infrastructure being built, because it wasn’t just the camps. Though even so, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around it: those barracks didn’t get built by elves working overnight. And what about the camp victims who were forced to work in the factories, and then herded back to the camps for the night? Oh—and the trains that rolled in, jammed with people, and then rolled out, empty? And then, most horrifically, well….have you ever burned a chicken bone, at a barbecue?”

“I can’t say that I have….”

“Raf, for reasons I’ve never understood, used to do it. And I can tell you, the stench is vile….”

“Can we please,” she said, “I mean, I know where you’re going.”

“That was it,” I said. “You and I are complicit, too. That’s the thing about the Holocaust—it brings just as much shame and guilt to everyone as it brought horror to its victims….”

“Well, I don’t know about that….”

“The German people told us, ‘we didn’t know,’ and the world judged them as mendacious. But we also knew, outside of Germany. There were reports of the camps, and there was discussion: should we bomb the camps? We were bombing cities, bombing factories, shouldn’t we bomb the camps? Look, even Wikipedia gets into the question:

Michael Berenbaum has argued that it is not only a historical question, but "a moral question emblematic of the Allied response to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust."[1] David Wyman has asked: "How could it be that the governments of the two great Western democracies knew that a place existed where 2,000 helpless human beings could be killed every 30 minutes, knew that such killings actually did occur over and over again, and yet did not feel driven to search for some way to wipe such a scourge from the earth?"[2]

“So it was out there: by 1942, the UN had declared a Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations Against Extermination of the Jews. And that was picked up on the front page of The New York Times. So as from that moment on, the world had a responsibility. We were all on record. And you could argue that people like my parents, good Midwesterners buying their Liberty bonds and feeling patriotic, were more guilty than the Germans themselves. It’s called ‘moral proximity,’ and does it exist? Especially now, when the world is so much smaller?”

“Moral what?”

“If a little kid gets lost in your store, do you have the moral responsibility to comfort her, and look for her parents?”

“Of course!”

“If a little kid gets lost in a store in China….”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“OK—that feels black and white, right? That’s easy. Now then, if a little kid loses an arm in a Nike factory in China, where he and all the other little kids are working as virtually slave labor….”

“I get the picture….”

“So we in the West knew, but did anyone force the debate? The whole point was to win the war—understandable, but it was never about the concentration camps. And in fact, would the United States ever have entered the war without Pearl Harbor being bombed? So it was OK that the Nazis were committing atrocities all over Europe, but it was only until the Japanese attacked us that it was time to act? Another question of moral proximity….”

“Well, I still don’t see why your parents were guiltier than the Germans at the time….”

“Because sticking your neck out in Nazi Germany was a lot harder than sticking your neck out in Madison, Wisconsin. Oh, and another question: if my parents were going to stick their neck out and shout about anything, what about the internment of Japanese-Americans? After all, we rounded up over a 100,000 people and put them in camps? Or they could have given a shout out to Franz Biebl, a German prisoner of war who got interned at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. He got stuck there for two years, from 1944 to 1946….”

“Marc? Aren’t we a little digressive today? Anyway, who was Biebl?”

“A choral composer, chiefly known for his ravishingly beautiful Ave Maria. But here’s the point: as somebody once said, anti-Semitism is a very light sleeper. Which means that while the average Briton or American would never themselves have thrown Jewish babies into the ovens, they never raised their eyebrows at jokes about the Jews, or at expressions like, ’Jewed me out of….’”


“To bargain hard, or even to cheat. So there was always the sense of the Jew being the ‘other,’ and in Britain, as well as in many other parts of the world, to be a ‘good Jew’ was to be as invisible as possible. Be as British or American as possible, don’t wear anything distinctively Jewish or act distinctively Jewish. Pretend that going to the synagogue is no more different than attending the Methodist, rather than Anglican, church.”

“And is that so bad?”

“Ah,” I said, “the old question. We gay people get it every June, when our friends ask us, ‘look, why don’t you do something about the drag queens in the outrageous costumes with the feathers and the sequins at the Pride March? Not to mention all those leather guys with the whips and chains! I mean, I don’t have a problem with it, but other people…..”

“Well, they have a point, don’t they?”

“Maybe,” I told her. “But then again, it was the drag queens that started the whole movement, when they fought the cops at Stonewall. And really, if we had just all played by the rules, worn our nice Sunday best, and played bridge during the week and golf on the weekends, do you really think anything would have changed? You know the old joke: when does a gay man become a fag?”


“When he leaves the room. So there had been a lot of mostly latent anti-Semitism for centuries before the war, and then when the Holocaust occurred, well, the focus was on winning the war, and not on the horrors of the concentration camps. And then, there were people walking around with numbers tattooed on their forearms: as a writer, I wonder about that. For the survivors, it must have been a daily question: cover it up? Single yourself out as a victim? Wear it as a reminder of something you’d like to forget? Wear it as a visual reminder or challenge to others: this was done to me, let none of us forget or pretend that it didn’t. And the people who saw it, as I did, once or twice in my life….”

“You saw people with Nazi tattoos?”

“Yes, and one of them was a prominent rabbi in the town I grew up in. He was elderly, and I met him in a hospital, so his tattoo was quite clear, though it was blurry and had always been of poor quality. That, of course, was hardly the point. But no, it was there, and I was helping him to the bathroom, and there the number was, blue ink on his forearm. And yes, I felt guilty, even though I was an American, and born more than a decade after the war had ended….”

“But why, Marc, why?”

“It was an assault on humanity, and humanity failed,” I told her. “Was Hitler evil? Undoubtedly. Did the Germans commit atrocities? Unquestionably. But to put the blame on Germany and Hitler is too easy. Even today, the Holocaust keeps challenging us.”

“Well,” said Lady, “do you really believe that we should have bombed the camps? Marc, those were people in there!”

“People who had no idea whether they would be alive the next day,” I told her. “If 2000 people could be killed in 30 minutes, well, wouldn’t it be better to ask the question: shouldn’t we put that death machine out of order? If we had bombed Auschwitz, wouldn’t we ultimately have saved more lives that we had sacrificed? Wouldn’t it be like amputating an infected limb, rather than killing the patient?”

“OK, I get that,” said Lady. “Geez, Marc, do you have to be so morbid? It is, after all, my birthday!”

And so it is! Happy birthday, Lady!

And was that why, from somewhere dark and sweet and primordial, from the death camps and the wounded and the dead, and the hungry on all sides and the frightened…somewhere, I tell you, we heard the Ave Maria, of Biebl, and were the questions answered?


But were we soothed?