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Tools of Memory

Published on Saturday, June 21 of 2014 by

The New York Times publishes an interview with an old fellow in the Bronx who claims that every day at Buchenwald the Germans threw a Jew into a cage with a bear and an eagle. The bear would eat the Jew and the eagle would pick his bones. Give me a break. The old Jewish guy says that he saw it with his own eyes.

A Jewish lady present at the interview says: “But that’s unbelievable!”

That doesn’t bother the old survivor. “Yes, he says, it is unbelievable. But it happened.”

Twenty or thirty years ago those stories were still amusing but I’ve heard them too many times now and they bore me. Sometimes I start snoring right in the middle of some old geezer’s windy tale. Awful lack of respect for Jewish sensibilities. Sometimes it goes beyond boredom to contempt. There must be times when my contempt is unjust. It’s the politics laying only half concealed under these stupid stories that annoys me. Not precisely the political agenda itself, but the vulgarity of the methods used to further it. The ritualized self-pity mixed with shameless self-promotion. The brazen anti-German bigotry. The charges of anti-Semitism when you express doubt about even the most brainless story when some so-called survivor is telling it.

I have similar reactions toward those Vietnam veterans who weep and mew around over having killed too many people over there, or the wrong people, or saw too many of their own comrades killed or maimed. In addition to the self-pity in so much of it there’s the underlying pitch for a political worldview that’s self-serving and wrong-headed. A worldview that suggests there was something wrong with killing Vietnamese but that it’s all right that we offed the Japanese and the Germans at random. Why not treat everybody alike is the way I look at it. Why not kill them all? Why not be fair about it?

We’ve had supper and now Mother and me are in the little front room watching T.V. It’s a program on how the U.S. Government, which invented our Vietnamese war much like it invented out Japanese and German wars, is setting up vet centers to treat mostly Vietnam veterans suffering from PTDS syndrome. Post-trauma-delayed-shock. Alicia and the kids are out shopping so the house is quiet. I expected to see a therapist leading a confessional and a lot of those close-ups of Vietnam veterans crying into the camera about their terrible war experiences and how hard it’s been for them to readjust to civilian life. In fact, that’s what I am seeing. It touches me to see grown men cry on camera but I can’t help feeling a little contemptuous of what I’m watching.

I am surprised, however, to hear that maybe a third of all homeless men in the U.S. today are Vietnam veterans. It makes me wonder for the first time if maybe I haven’t misjudged the seriousness of PTDS syndrome. I watch a chubby fellow who had been a medic describe how it had been for him in the Ia Drang Valley in 1967. It was his first action and he had expected to take care of the ideal wounds he had been taught about in the army’s five week basic training course for medics.

The first thing he observed about the wounded in the Ia Drang Valley was that they didn’t have very many ideal wounds. He talks about a rifleman who had so many bullet holes in him, including one through his nose, that the kid didn’t have a chance. He says he told the kid: “Die or I’ll kill you myself.” Now the ex-medic takes of his glasses and begins to cry on camera. I expect that but I hadn’t expected to be so terribly moved by the story. The medic has used a line of prose that rings absolutely true.

The end of the program is here and the camera returns to the ex medic who is sitting stone faced and silent in the circle of other vets. The therapist suggests that the ex medic has closed up, that he has distanced himself from the rest of the group. The therapist pushes until the medic nods yes. The therapist says: Tell us one thing that you want to say about your experience in Vietnam. The medic’s round chubby face is set in concrete. The therapist pushes at him. I don’t think the medic’s going to speak. I believe in his distress. The therapist is making me edgy. If you could say one thing, the therapist pushes, what would it be? He isn’t going to let up. I’m getting very edgy. One thing, the therapist insists. If you had to say only one thing.

The ex medic says: “If all those other men had to die like that, I should have died too.”

“You don’t have the right to be alive,” the therapist says cheerfully, “right?”

“I don’t have the right,” the medic says, and he starts to cry again.

I try to hold back my own tears but I can’t. I get up and stand behind Mothers chair so that she can’t see me. I think about how I have never felt that I don’t have the right to live. I watch the other vets in the group express sympathy for the ex medic. They speak simply and straight-forwardly without jargon. I’m torn by the scene. I go out on the back porch where mother can’t hear me. Mother doesn’t cry over scenes like that. She doesn’t cry over much at all. I think that’s one reason she’s never cared for the movies.

While I lean against the washing machine thought reminds me of those Jewish survivors who claim they feel guilty for having lived through the camps where so many of their family and friends perished, how they feet guilty because they didn’t die too. Jenny was the first who told me that story. She was talking about her father who had left Germany before the war and sat it out in Cuba and New York. He lost contact with his family and when the war was over he came to believe that all those closest to him had been destroyed by the Germans. Jenny said that his guilt over having survived, or having survived the way he had, plagued him the rest of his life. I didn’t disbelieve the story, but I didn’t take it too seriously either.

There’s a lot of talk about guilt among my progressive friends. Feeling guilty has a certain moral standing in progressive circles. It doesn’t for me. I see guilt as an expression of self indulgence and spiritual laziness. Over the years so many ex-internees of the camps have claimed they feel guilty for not having been exterminated themselves that it’s come to be a particularly vulgar cliché. Still, some of them probably do feel that way.

When I first told Jenny about finding out that something is wrong with the Holocaust story she said that no matter what I found out, that for her the Holocaust would always be the memory of her father in their little grocery store in Hoboken searching for refugee lists published daily in The New York Times, looking for the names of members of his family and never finding one.

After Korea when I was in the camp hospital at Fort Ord, California, getting the hand fixed up I told Dr. Silverman about the headaches. When he found out that a few months before the hand was torn up I had taken a little hit in the side of the head, he ordered up some x-rays. When he didn’t find anything wrong with the head he suggested that I might be suffering from delayed shock. It was the first time I had heard that you could be hurt in the winter, say, and start to suffer from it the following summer. Dr. Silverman prescribed two aspirins daily and I don’t recall that I ever mentioned the headaches again. It had been gratifying however to be told that there might be something real behind the headaches and after a while I stopped having them. Maybe I had a little PDTS myself.

There was no whining and weeping around about Korea by the guys who had been there. There were no veteran centers to take care of the middle aged ex-soldiers who couldn’t get their lives together. No therapists, no group confessionals, no support groups and no calls for any of that. I knew that VA hospitals had men in them too damaged to ever leave. As a boy I had seen World War 1 veterans shaking spasmodically along the side walks and gutter in Los Angeles, but we hadn’t suffered in Korea the way our fathers had suffered in France in 1918/19. World War 11 infantry hadn’t suffered either like those who had been in the trenches in the first Great War. For the Germans it was another story. No infantry in this century has gone through what the German has, twice. Soviet artillery and U.S. and British air forces saw to that.

So after Korea I was content with what had happened over there, on balance, but I knew something was half wrong too. I never told myself that something was wrong but I was aware that for a long time I would not talk about what happened in Korea to anyone who had not been there in combat. And then there were the dreams that came and came and came. They were breathtaking in their directness. Many camp survivors tell a similar tale. They say that if you were not in the camps that you will never know what it was like in the camps. That must be true. More than that, it must be a truism. What life experience can be imagined that you could not say the same thing about? The word is not the thing. So survivors have their dreams too. They should be thankful for them. It’s not likely that anything else they got from the camps will ever be more valuable.

We can’t direct memory or force its expression in dreams to take any certain path, but we are not obligated to employ memory to manipulate others either. There are Vietnam veterans who are neurotically attached to memory just as so many “survivors” affect to be. But I don’t see Vietnam vets using their suffering to encourage contempt and hatred for others, or to try to maintain a hegemony in intellectual and cultural affairs that is based on fraud and falsehood. I can’t say that the same is true for the so-called survivor community.

There is a contingent of these “survivors,” along with their funky intellectuals, who tell us that if we forget the Holocaust it might happen again. Aside from the fact that it didn’t happen the first time, the puerility of the observation is obvious. How many slaughters of the innocent have taken place during the half century we have been urged to not forget the “Holocaust”? Remembering the Holocaust is what the most regressive elements in the Jewish community are most enthusiastic about. Men and women who, in the service of what they feel is higher goal, speak of Arabs as “two legged animals” that breed like “many dogs”, or refer to the people of Austria as “anti-Semitic dogs”.

One reason American veterans might use memory as a tool for personal insight and reconciliation with old foes while Holocaust survivors use it to reinforce hateful stereotypes for political gain, may be that our Vietnam vets took an active part in battle as free men while “survivors” surrendered up front to their sworn enemies and labored for them as “slaves” throughout the war. Unwilling to express their rage while Germans were tearing their women and children from them and sending them off to God knows where, or what, Jews labored for their masters throughout the war to help defeat the armies sent to liberate them. Self hatred, which some Jews talk about so much, must have deepened considerably during the war and the years following it, particularly among the men. It would be interesting to learn what differences there might be in the psychological profiles of those Jews who worked for the Germans throughout the war and those who joined partisan or other resistance groups and fought the Germans.

Maybe it’s this “self” hatred that some survivors feel, and if it isn’t that, what is it? What is it that encourages so many of them to want to keep alive stories that Germans skinned Jews and cooked them and burned their babies alive in furnaces and ditches used pesticides to exterminate their families as if they were vermin. Is it this self-hatred that encourages some Jews to claim that, while they themselves are innocent of all wrong doing everywhere, that everywhere they are despised by everyone? If it isn’t that, what is it?

I believe we are failing in our responsibility to those “survivors” of the German labor and concentration camps who immigrated to this country after the war. We treat them like children. We listen to their stories as if we are listening to children imagining giants and witches and dragon lairs. In a curious way we listen to their stories—and all their stories are accusations against others—as if the stories don’t matter. When do we ever turn to these “eyewitnesses” and ask them to demonstrate that their accusations are true? We sympathize and empathize and throw up are hands at the horror of it all. We don’t take seriously the fact that in these survivor tales real German men and women are the “monsters”. That these “monsters” had mothers and fathers and children themselves and were part of a community and a people.

It’s not an attack on all Jews to question stories some Jews tell. It’s a mitzvah. It’s a blessing, one that I have denied Jews the benefit of nearly all of my life, first with my foolish credulity, and then with my fear of shaming them. My own dishonesty has been a guide for many Jews, while my weaknesses have encouraged them to fall victim to their weaknesses. I owe Jews everything I owe myself and my other friends. At the very least I owe them honesty, regard and forthrightness. I’m going to give to Jews and to all others now what I have denied them for so long. The time has come.

I’m not unaware that I am too easily moved to tears. Even Robert Faurisson has commented on it. I wear my heart on my sleeve and always have. I don’t know why. I am moved terribly by revelations of inner anguish, particularly by those who ask nothing in return. Sincere expressions of friendship or brotherhood, in which I may be playing no part whatever, touch the deepest hollows in my heart. Malcolm Muggeridge observed that the ideal of brotherhood is more pertinent to human society than the struggle for equality. I think that must be true. The promise of fidelity is a common thread that runs through such ideals as friendship and brotherhood. Fidelity is an obligation too of the literary writer, the autobiographer, whose promise is to reveal the writer’s own inner struggle, selflessly.

Fidelity. I suppose I could have used the word love, but I don’t use that word. Even as I begin to write about the word my eyes fill with tears. I have to take out my handkerchief and wipe my face and blow my nose. I don’t tell Alicia I love her. I don’t tell the kids. They know it but I don’t say it. I suppose they know it. I suppose I do.

Maybe that’s why I’m so moved watching the ex medic who was in the Ia Drang Valley recall on TV how he had told the terribly wounded soldier: “Die or I’ll kill you myself.” Maybe it’s the medics promise to kill the soldier which at that moment is his expression of his love for the young man lying in the dirt before him that moves me so. Not the dying, which was nothing special over there. The love. Without a single note of hatred for the enemy, or for anyone else.


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