Part I: Rumors and Omens
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Part I of the Journal
March 15, 1994. 6:00 AM.
Six months ago at this time of day, I was having breakfast in arestaurant above the departure lounge of the Tegel InternationalAirport in the former West Berlin. Coins from four countrieslittered my Levis pockets. There were Marks, Guilders, Zlotysand a few U.S. coins. It was mostly Monopoly money to me – thereal stuff was in a zippered and pinned inside pocket at the backof my cam-fish jacket.
Without my reading glasses, I couldn’t tell one coin fromanother, except for the pennies. And I was so ragged out and rundown I really didn’t care. But the men’s room attendant didcare. She got a little upset when I plunked down money from theNetherlands instead of Germany for my toilet toll. She smiledand nodded agreeably when I let her take her pick from a handfulof coins I held out to her.
All I cared about besides taking a leak was getting through afour and one-half hour wait for the flight back from Berlinthrough Amsterdam to DC. I was tired, wired, and in no mood forhanging out in an airport. On arriving, I had tried to changeflights to get home faster, but I had non-refundable, non-transferable tickets for which I’d paid KLM bargain prices. Changing flights meant paying several hundred more dollars for a new, full fare ticket. Breakfast was step one of my impromptu plan to keep myself occupied until boarding time.
It was a good move. The atmosphere of the restaurant was not asfrenzied as it was around the ticket counters and departureareas. There were hundreds of people downstairs. They weremeeting flights, making flight arrangements, pouring into and outof departure and arrival areas, or just waiting for their flightto be called. The few plastic shell chairs on the concourse wereuncomfortable, if you could get one. Ashtrays were scarce.
I found a haven on the top level where the airport conferencerooms and restaurant were located. The men’s room was cleaner,more spacious, and free. The restaurant was nearly empty. Breakfast was all you could eat for about twelve bucks and thefood was nicely laid out on cold trays and steam tables. Freshfruits, melons, breads and pastries, meats, butter, jams andjuices, and more were there for the taking. A waiter brought mesome mineral water and a couple of cups of coffee. I took mytime, enjoying both the quiet and the meal, looking out over therunways, smoking, and thinking about what I had just beenthrough.
I couldn’t sit there forever, though. After an hour or so, Iwent back downstairs to the visitor information desk. I hadthought of a couple of things I might do to kill some time. Perhaps I could manage a quick bus and subway ride to the BerlinZoo or Spandau Prison. The Berlin Zoo wound up being my onlychoice since it was readily accessible by subway, and, accordingto the tourist information staff, Spandau had been torn downafter the death of Rudolph Hess.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Inever reached the zoo. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I justcouldn’t find it after leaving the metro. I got off at the rightstop and even got further directions at a newsstand. But aftergoing a couple of blocks and finding no sign of it, I turned backand took a look around the general area of the subway station. As fate would have it, I had arrived at the site of a Germancathedral destroyed during the war and never rebuilt. A journeyof many years came to a fitting end in the ruin.
It was a trip I guess I started when I was twelve or thirteen andwas first exposed to the story of The Holocaust, mostly throughpop-history paperbacks. Back then, I read everything I could getmy hands on. Most of what I read was matter-of-fact and onlyslightly sensational, with a few graphic, black and whites forthe middle pages. There had also been the obligatory detailsabout medical experiments at Auschwitz on twins and on the infirmas well as about starving prisoners unknowingly eating fleshbeing boiled off human skeletons and the like. These weren’tscholarly works, you understand. But they were effective.
Place names like The Warsaw Ghetto, Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Nuremberg, and words and phrases likesonderkommando, crematorium, Zyklon B, and “Arbeit Macht Frei”,and images of ovens, barbed wire, the living dead and piles ofthe truly dead were part of my life by age fifteen, although notof really part of my sensibility. I had read about them and knewwhat I had read, but did not know. Nevertheless, I was sostricken by what I read that, in response to one writer’sadmonition that we never forget, I made a heartfelt promise thatthe horror would not be forgotten. I would remember.
Over the years, I added to what I knew in a totally disorganizedway. I watched and read and listened. Television and mainstreamhistorians and investigative journalists all played big roles inthat protracted osmosis. I even met a Holocaust survivor or twoafter I moved up to D.C. As I grew, the history, the facts, andthe media coverage grew.
More and more stuff was made public. Survivors and guards alikeshowed up in television interviews, in documentaries, and inpublic. Eichmann was captured and Mengele was disinterred,although I wouldn’t make book on the latter. I learned of SimonWiesenthal and of the OSI.
As a kid, I took part in debates with others my age about theissue of capturing and punishing old men for what were to usancient crimes. As an adult, I even met one of our for-real Nazihunters, who assured me we could have had them, any of them, atany time after the war. The story grew and could not be denied,even by the machinations of revisionist (read Fascist) authorsand associations.
As the story unfolded for me, I saw that we knew and had alwaysknown more about the Final Solution than was admitted. And thatwe could have taken out the camps at will but didn’t. And thatwe made room in our nation for virtually every Nazi we met whowas willing to drop a dime on a Commie or a fellow traveler so asto endear themselves to Allen Dulles’ boys or to J. Edgar Hoover. I learned that we supported former Nazis in their rise to renewedpower during the rebuilding of Germany and made them comfortablein the leadership of the U.N. and of the Space Race.
Thirty years ago, the party line was that we knew little untilthe camps were liberated. Fifteen years ago, I understood thatthere had been eyewitness reports to FDR but no salvation fromThe West. Today, it’s clear that the governments of the U.S. andits allies were as deliberate and as duplicitous and as guilty asany German, soldier or civilian.
Films like Shoah and programs like Kitty on PBS about survivorsreturning to the scenes of the crimes made me start thinking thatI could go there. I had a promise to keep and I could go there. I picked up clues that would let me find Majdanek or Belzec orMathausen or Sobibor, so that I could stand where the condemnedhad stood and see where they had died. I could say I had seenthe evidence first-hand. Having stood there, I could hold outagainst revisionism with my own experience. I also saw that Ihad to do it soon.
Soon, because Dachau is now a verdant park which belies itspurpose and demeans memory. Because Sobibor and Plaznow andTreblinka are gone and there were plans to put a hotel andvisitor’s center in the administrative complex at Auschwitz. What little evidence remained was fading and could soon vanish. It could all be cleared for urban renewal or become part of agreat, sanitized park system with self-guided tours going frommarker to push-the-button marker on neat little trails that windtheir way to the exit and on to the local McDonald’s.
I can tell you what made me realize that I could go. But,there’s no telling exactly why I felt so compelled to go. Youknow how it is. Children often make decisions which they forgetbut later live out. So, at the age of forty-eight, in the yearof the fiftieth anniversary of the final transports of Jews fromthe Cracow ghetto, I kept my childhood promise by going to Polandto see what was left of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the twin sistersof no mercy. Having done so, I could not now forget whathappened there or why or how if I wanted to.
End of Part I