Tags: true stories

thinking

Yellow pages

Half of my relatives died in Latvia during the war. The Latvian sondercommando poured water on them in the dead of winter. The person in charge was captured after the war and sent to the Gulag. He was amnestied in the 1950s. My father saw him in his village in the 1960s. He looked unremarkable, like any other villager. In the late 1960s this Latvian had an argument with his mother. He tied her to a tree in his backyard, and hosed her with ice-cold water until she froze to death. This time, he was executed. My closest surviving relatives are from Leningrad. The odds of surviving the starvation during the blockade were much better than surviving in occupied Latvia.

My family barely escaped the same fate. My great-grandfather, a chemical engineer, was from Dvinsk. He was educated in Germany and wanted to stay there, but then changed his mind and returned to Russia in order to marry my great-grandmother. In the early 1910s, they settled in St Petersburg. They made it through the revolution. In 1928, my great-grandfather was arrested as the enemy of the people. He was lucky: it was early on, and he was exiled. The exile saved his life. During the war he joined my grandmother in evacuation. Would his choice be different, he would live in Germany and our branch would be extinct.

Yet there are worse things than death. Being a Jew in Nazi Germany was the best lot, because the Jews were the only people which were not part of it and couldn't have been part of it --- even if they wanted to. I know what could've been the worst, what would happen had the Germans disentangled their nationalism from anti-Semitism. Jewish SS men would be killing Polish Jews for the glory of Nordic Jewry. The Jews working for Gestapo would be catching gypsies, Jewish doctors would be doing experiments on the prisoners, and Jewish engineers would be constructing gas chambers. Do you think that that would not happen? I have no such illusions. The assimilated Jews in Germany had no scruples inventing chemical warfare during the WWI and the assimilated Jews in Russia were involved in the most heinous crimes. It is only by grace that the unthinkable did not happen. But it was close, too close.

No one was able to explain how my great-grandfather managed to die of old age. The family lore is that in his middle years he looked like Stalin and that saved him. On the photographs, he looks like aging Groucho Marx. I have little left from him: his letters, his phylacteries, his razor, and two pocket-size books: the Mahzor printed in Vilno in 1882 and the Hebrew Bible printed in 1922 in Cambridge. I also have a few holey, yellowed pages from the Book of Kings he always kept on his body.

I am well equipped for the 21st century.
thinking

Klaus and Herr Hitler

cont http://aptsvet.livejournal.com/488731.html?thread=7203099#t7203099

Here is another story from a German-American friend of mine, Klaus. He lived in Stuttgart before and during the war. Like other kids, Klaus was in Hitler youth; by his own admission, he was a fanatical Nazi. Sixty years later he remembered every syllable of the anti-Semitic songs they sung marching through the streets. His home was a regular German home, with an altar: an expensive, leather-bound edition of Mein Kampf on top of the folded Nazi flag; there was also a portrait of the author of this book on the wall, right above the book. There was a rite he performed every day in front of the portrait and the book. Klaus' father was killed on the Eastern front, and a small photo of his father, in uniform, was placed on the altar next to the portrait. Klause lived with his mother and waited until he would be old enough to serve in the Wermaht.

In 1945, Stuttgart was captured by the Allies. Klaus was there when it happened. Shortly thereafter, an American soldier with a rifle in his hands and a lit sigarette in his lips appeared at the door. The soldier was black. Klaus never saw such a person. The sight of the non-Aryan fell upon the altar. He unceremoniusly tossed the holy book into the window and desecrated the flag by blowing his nose into it and wiping his black face. Klaus was so shocked he stupefied. Then the blasphemer had a better idea. He took his lighter out of the pocket and pushed it into Klaus' clenched fists, pointing him towards the image. It took some time for Klaus to grasp what the soldier wanted, so abominable was the request. He said: "Nein". The soldier became more insistent. Klaus resisted. The soldier began to be very insistent, using the butt of his rifle to push Klaus towards the portrait. Klaus decided that he would rather die than betray Der Führer. The soldier was shouting at him in an unintelligable language, and then he pressed the barrel against Klaus' chest. Klaus looked at the portrait on the wall. He closed his eyes.

It is at this moment that his mother appeared at the door. She saw Klaus. She saw the soldier with the lighter and the loaded gun pointing to her son's chest. She saw the portrait. Klaus told me that it took her less than a minute to kiss the soldier, take the portrait off the wall and lit it, and explain to the soldier, using pantomime, that Klaus was a deaf retard. Then she produced a bottle of Schnapps and saw the guy out. She tossed the burning portrait into the tub and told Klaus that she dreamed of doing it since Klaus was a baby.

He did not speak to his mother for two years. It took Klaus a while to realize what he was, but when he understood, he understood it very well. In 1954, he emigrated to the US, where he lives to this day. Klaus never made any secret of his past. He told me a lot of stories, in his unforgettable, heavy German accent, but it is this one that stuck in my mind.

I am glad I never had to stand before this altar.