Break His Bones: The Private Life
Of A Holocaust Revisionist
While one year follows the other inexorably, the subjective life has a different logic. Pamela and I were married then and living in a friend’s single on the fortieth floor of the Waldorf Towers on 42nd Street in New York City. We were up from a year in Mexico where I’d been studying meso-American archeology on the GI Bill. Pamela thought we were going to Munich where I would continue working toward a degree but I had found out that I did not like digging in the meso-American sun and the truth was I wasn’t going to study anything in Munich and I was looking for a way out.
The week we got to New York Pamela found a job at a hospital on First Avenue. She was a registered nurse so it was a cinch for Pamela. For my part, I only knew how to work with my hands and in New York, I don’t know why because it had never been a problem in other places, I didn’t know how to find those kinds of jobs. It never occurred to me to try to make a living with the writing. The writing was a way to save my soul. For reasons I did not understand, my soul had become an issue. An elaborate dream life was beginning to flower, and for the first time I began to see things when I was awake as well as when I was sleeping. That worried Pamela but it fascinated me. Many of the things I saw made me laugh, but not all of them, and Pamela couldn’t see any of them and she didn’t think it was funny when I said I could. One day I saw God appear on the wall of our apartment in the shape of an hour glass and beckon to me and Pamela couldn’t see that either and when I told her about it that may have been the beginning of the end for us.
One morning after I walked Pamela to her First Avenue bus stop I strolled back up Forty-Second Street buzzing with the excitement that was becoming an increasing part of my life and on Times Square I spied a little shop that sold only paperbound books. I’d never seen a paperback bookstore. It was a brilliant new concept. It was beautiful. The moment I saw it I understood what I thought it would mean to the book trade. I experienced a fantastic insight into the nexus connecting the writing life, my life, with the world of business. I would forget about archeology once and for all, open my own bookstore, sell only paperback books, earn a living and make Pamela happy. And each morning many hours before it was time to go to the shop I would sit down to the typewriter and work on the journal and the other manuscripts. It was perfect. I would spend the rest of my life reading and writing and selling books, in that order unfortunately.
When I told Pamela my new plans for our future she laughed and said, “El Estupido strikes again!”
Within days I was in Los Angeles scouting locations. Pamela would follow in four weeks. I found a good location, the right size at the right rent, on Fairfax Avenue on the south edge of West Hollywood. What cinched the location for me was how much it resembled Second Avenue in New York with its liveliness, its neighborhood-like warmth, and for me its note of the exotic. It was very foreign to where I had grown up in South Central Los Angeles. Fairfax couldn’t compare to Second Avenue in New York in size or in the density of population and number of businesses, but there was a whiff of all of it there and that was enough to turn the trick for me.
The folks were going to bankroll the bookstore. One afternoon I drove Mother to Fairfax and parked at the curbing to watch the foot traffic. After a while she said, “Why do you want to put our store on a street with all these people?”
“All what people?”
“All these Jews.”
It was the first time in my life that Mother had ever mentioned the word Jew to me. I was twenty-nine years old. I felt a little set back.
“There’s not that many Jews here, Ma. Some of them are Jews.”
“Well, they all look Jewish to me.”
I realized I didn’t really know what a Jew looked like. “I don’t think so,” I said.
We sat silently in the car watching the people go by. I began to imagine that a lot of them did look Jewish. I wasn’t sure what that should mean. I had spent several hours on the street over a three-day period and hadn’t noticed anything peculiar. Now I saw that the signs scotch-taped to the windows of a meat market next to my store were lettered in what looked like Hebrew. I’d noted that before but it hadn’t rung a bell. Across the street was the big Bagel Delicatessen. On Second Avenue, and everywhere else in New York, the delicatessens had been terrific. A few doors to the North there was a bookstore specializing in Jewish books and gifts with lots of silver candlesticks. I’d checked it out the day before and decided we would not be in competition.
So I leased the space, designed the store, ordered the stock and opened for business. Everything was painted white and all the shelving was glass. It was beautiful. The night Pamela arrived I drove her from the airport directly to the bookstore and turned on the lights. She stood there looking around as if she were dazzled. She put her arm through mine and hugged it. “I didn’t expect this,” she said. “I’m going to write dad and tell him how proud I am of El Estupido.”
Business was a little slow, sometimes six, eight, sometimes fifteen dollars a day. A lot of the people who walked past the front of the store were elderly and talked to each other in what I discovered was Yiddish. I didn’t see the writing on the wall. I thought we needed more time. Mother didn’t have anything more to say about Jews. She didn’t mention Jews again for about thirty years. That was after I’d started writing about revisionism and one day she said she wished I’d stop writing about Jews. She said, “It just means trouble, Bradley. You know they don’t like it.”
After the bookstore was open three or four months I rented out the rear of it to a middle-aged lady named Esther Levine who sold books by mail. Her son Philip was an English instructor and a locally recognized poet. My own mother was working in the store by then and she liked Esther and Esther liked us and we all got on fine.
One morning a slightly built man in his fifties came in the store, bared his teeth, squinted through his wire rimmed glasses and went over all the shelves one by one. He turned to me with a long-jawed, wolf-like grin and said, “What’s a Gentile doing opening an intellectual bookstore on Fairfax Avenue?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “My mother warned me against it.”
“Well,” he said, sighing a little, “your mother was right. Of course, you’re still too young to listen to your mother. When you get to be my age you’ll start taking what your mother says pretty seriously.”
All his life Boris had thought of himself as a writer but for years he’d made a living selling men’s shoes. One day it occurred to him that he was fifty-eight years old and hadn’t written a line in ten years. He decided that afternoon to quit men’s shoes and break into sit-com writing for television. That first morning I had no way to know how large a part Boris would come to play in my life, or how attached to him I would become. It would prove to be the first time in my life that I would associate regularly with an intellect of high order-soaring, direct, extraordinarily sensitive, flushed through with good sense and good will.
One day a few months later Boris found out I had given him the name of Maurice in my journal.
“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “call me Joe, will you? I understand what you’re doing, or what you think your doing, but I’ve never been a Maurice. The day I set foot in this country I knew I was born to be an American. A Joe. Nobody could fool me about it, either. In America, who the hell wants to be a Maurice when he can be a Joe, will you tell me that? Do you have even the foggiest notion of what I’m talking about?”
So, I liked the street, I was in a business I thought I could handle, but I was losing our investment. I didn’t know what to do. My store was right across the street from The Bagel. A man about my age then, I suppose he’s still about my age, slim with dark curly hair, worked behind the deli counter. When he stretched out his arm over the glass counter to hand a customer his order, I would look at the numbers tattooed on the inside of his left forearm. I recognized them as identifying someone who had been in a German concentration camp. I didn’t know at that time that it was only at Auschwitz that internees were tattooed. It interested me to watch him work and talk to the others. I understood he’d had an adventure and I would’ve liked to have heard about it, how it had been for him and so on, but I was never able to make a connection with him. I had the feeling he did not want to talk to me. Maybe I was just being shy.
It was about that time that Adolf Eichmann was seized in Argentina by Israeli intelligence, kidnapped and flown to Israel. There he was interrogated for months, tried and hung for having been a big mover in Hitler’s program to exterminated the Jews of Europe. Now that the historians are backtracking to the idea that there was no state plan to exterminate the Jews after all, and that the genocide originated in a kind of spontaneous combustion of mass psychosis among SS officers, an unattractive light is beginning to illuminate the Eichmann trial. But at that time I didn’t know those kinds of ideas even existed.
Several books on the Eichmann affair were published in paperback very quickly after his capture, complete with cover illustrations of swastikas and SS uniforms. I bought a couple of the titles for the store. I had never heard of Eichmann until the press reports of his kidnapping. When the books arrived and I saw the photographs that illustrated them I felt a horror and disgust that I had not felt even in Korea where I had seen the real stuff. It was the photographs of the emaciated, skeletal-like cadavers thrown together for burial, or pictured looking into the camera with dazed and empty eyes. I’m accustomed to seeing those photos now and can look at them with equanimity. But that afternoon when I saw them for the first time I was filled with so much helpless rage that I swore I would never look at them again.
Early one sunny morning I was walking up and down the streets in the neighborhood west of Fairfax placing a leaflet announcing my bookstore in the door handle of each house. As I walked along through the beautiful sunlight I began to see very clearly, with a kind of heightened awareness, how pretty the painted houses were, like illustrations in children’s books are pretty. The red and yellow roses and pink camellias were suffused with a rich, luxuriant beauty I had never seen before. The green lawns, still damp with night dew, sparkled like rectangular lakes of light points. A father stepped out of the door of one of the pretty houses into the yellow morning sunshine with his little girl and they walked up the street ahead of me holding hands. Something drained out of me then, something heavy, and I felt flooded by the sunlight, and while I walked I felt the body lifted up and I sailed slowly along over the concrete walks passing out my flyers, the heart suffused with the warmth, the rich color and the heavenly light that was everywhere inside and out.
The journal had taken an interesting turn. I was doing a running commentary on how the lives of the Kennedy brothers impinged on my own, especially that of Ted, who was about my age. I tracked what they said about the passing scene and noted how I felt about what they had to say. I kept in mind that Ted’s family was well connected, while mine had never gotten plugged in. That he was formally educated while I had completed only a vocational course in high school, and that he was rich and I was poor. It was a complicated project, a good project, but too grand for me at the time.
The owner of the electrical repair shop which was on the other side of my store from the meat market kept a television playing in his window for people to watch from outside. One noonday I picked up a sandwich from The Bagel and when I crossed the street to return to my store there were four or five people standing on the sidewalk looking through the window. That was unusual, so I joined them and found they were watching President Kennedy giving his inaugural address. When he came to the place where he urged us to not ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, I turned away with contempt for the sentiment and for the prose. I was having plenty of trouble with my own writing and I didn’t feel very generous toward others who used the language poorly, particularly if they were in public life or had successful careers
Esther, Mother and I were a happy threesome. Esther was about fifty years old, overweight, had a rotten front tooth and she smoked all the time but she was an attractive woman and you could see that when she was young she had been very attractive. She was bright and knew more about books than I did and was more widely read than I was. Politically, she was on the left. Esther and I laughed a lot, sometimes Mother was in on it, but usually it was Esther and me. One day I remarked to Mother what good company Esther was and Mother said, “Well, maybe she is, but she’s not my type.” I think it was the smoking and a set of cultural and political references unfamiliar to Mother that divided them.
One morning Esther called to me from the back of the store and when I went behind the partition I found her standing by her worktable, her face ashen and drained. “Bradley,” she said, “I never thought you would do anything like this.”
I could see she was suffering terribly. I sensed she thought that somehow I was the cause of it. I was utterly at sea as to what was going on.
“I like you so much,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I feel so sorry for you.”
I was flabbergasted. All I could do was stare at her. She appeared to feel that I would know what she was talking about but I didn’t know. She looked like she was about to lose hold of herself. I was terrified by the thought that she might begin to weep. It crossed my mind that she might be having a heart attack, but what would that have to do with her feeling sorry for me?
“Bradley,” she said, “I was reading your diary and I saw where you wrote that you hoped Eichmann would act like a man. Oh, Bradley, how could you? I’m so sorry. I really am.”
“You were reading my diary?” I didn’t really care that she had looked at it. What I really needed was some time for the brain to sort out what was happening. It was true I had made an entry in the journal where I expressed the hope that Eichmann, now that he had been captured and was going to be hanged, would act like a man during the proceedings.
“I know I shouldn’t have looked at your diary,” she said. “But it was lying open on your desk and when I walked past I glanced down at it. Oh, Bradley, I’m so sorry. I’m not angry with you. I’m really not. I’m just so sorry.” There were tears in her eyes.
I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I was beginning to see what she was getting at. I wasn’t certain. It was my remark about hoping that Eichmann would act like a man during his trial and when he was hung. It could be taken in more than one way. Esther didn’t ask me what I meant. Her opinion of what I had meant must have formed and set itself in concrete the first instant she had read the words. Without reflection, without considering who had written it, in what context, from what perspective and so on. She’d read the statement and-Bamm!
“I’m so sorry, Bradley,” she said over and over. “I really am so very sorry.”
When I wrote that I hoped Eichmann, now that he was going to be tried and executed, and it was commonly understood that was the scenario that would be played out, would behave like a man during the proceedings, I think that’s pretty much what I meant. I felt a real need to see him as a full-blown individual, not a cardboard cutout, not a fool, a coward or an idiot, not a man who would appear to not be capable of having committed the crimes I had every reason to believe he had committed. I saw Eichmann as one of the great criminals in modern history and I wanted to see him project an image large enough to match his crimes. Over the years I had read a lot of journalism and seen a lot of movies about Nazis who at first would perform heroic deeds but in the end would irrevocably reveal themselves to be cowards or clowns or mere psychopaths or all three. I had never been able to make the connection between Hitler as he was portrayed on the screen and in the American press with the immense catastrophe I was told he had brought about. How could such a pip-squeak have brought on so many earth-shaking events? I had never doubted that he had, but there was something unreal about it for me. Why did so many Europeans-not just Germans-idolize a man portrayed as a mere brute? Why were the German military willing to follow Hitler so far down such a desperate road? Had they all been clowns and cowards too? How could such little men have performed so magnificently in the field during such catastrophic defeats? It wasn’t that I actually asked such questions-I didn’t-but I was aware of something not being right, something about the story and the people involved in it I didn’t understand.
I think I was half-consciously looking to Eichmann to at last prove to be a man who could have done what the Germans did and what they were accused of having done. There was some way in which I wanted Germans to become whole in my imagination. Maybe Eichmann would prove to be the key that I could use to integrate the history of my time, as I understood it, with those people I believed had brought it about. It wasn’t that I would feel personally diminished if Eichmann behaved poorly during his trial. I didn’t identify subjectively with Germans any more than I did with Jews. But if Eichmann had said he would be willing to leap laughing into his grave because of his part in successfully exterminating six million Jews, I wanted to see a man who could make me believe it. I wanted to see a man who was real, not another Hollywood construct. If Eichmann were to prove out, as it were, then maybe the great historical events of my century would become real to me. If at last one great German criminal would measure up to the crime he was accused of, if he were to reveal himself to be a man to fit his deeds then maybe, just maybe, I would be able to get a handle on the Holocaust and the Nazis and the Jews in a way that I had never been able to before. Maybe I would find out how so many millions of Jews could have been so mesmerized by Hitler and his Nazis that with hardly more than a whimper they would have handed their children over to a race of evil brutes to be smashed and burned and gassed and then trail off to their own graves like so many soulless robots.
I suppose now that Esther’s imagination had run away with her. I suppose that when she read that I wanted Eichmann to act like a man-as opposed to what?-that I admired him, or approved of him, or-what? If I admired Eichmann, Esther might have imagined that I admired or sympathized with other Nazi war criminals. If that much were true it would not be unthinkable that I admired or was sympathetic toward Adolf Hitler, and that in my heart I sympathized with Nazism and its depredations against the Jews. If all that were true maybe I despised Jews as a people and, secretly, maybe I held Esther herself in contempt. And if all that were true then I must have approved of the mass gassings of the Jews and had a few laughs over the stories about Germans smashing and bashing the brains out of Jewish babies and burning them alive.
I don’t know what Esther imagined. She didn’t say and I felt too miserable to ask. Maybe she wasn’t clear about it herself. I can’t recall how the scene ended that morning. I knew that I had been misjudged in some way, but I didn’t want to offer an explanation without being asked for one. I didn’t want to apologize for what I had said, and even less for something I hadn’t said and didn’t feel. I can still see the hurt on her face and still hear her saying, “I feel so sorry for you, Bradley. So very sorry.” And I can’t recall either of us ever mentioning the incident again. We more or less picked up where we’d left off, laughing and horsing around and talking 1960s politics. How did we ever do it?
That summer with my business failing I moved the store to Hollywood Boulevard and I believe Esther dropped by one morning to say hello and then I don’t recall ever seeing her again. I still come across her son’s name in the poetry journals, however-Philip Levine. He’s quite well established now as a professor and poet. I wonder if Esther ever told her son about what that fellow she worked with at Bradley’s Bookstore had written in his journal
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