Thanks to a birthdate falling between V-E and V-J days, I absorbed a fair amount of World War II folklore, and grew up with more or less conventional, popular-culture ideas about Nazis. They were bogymen (albeit more personal bogymen for me than for my friends, because I was Jewish and my friends weren’t). Thinking about what the Nazis had done to the Jews was scary, but it was scary in the way thinking about kidnappers was scary: I couldn’t sleep, but I knew my father would never let anybody do that to me. Sometimes I tried to think hard about atrocities, about the crimes I knew were as tangible as streets and houses, but I couldn’t do it. I drew a line between the world of the war in which I had been conceived and the world into which I had been born. Fantasies—not all of them self-produced—replaced flesh and blood. As the movies I would later see defined the men my parents’ generation had fought—cold, blond, thin-lipped automatons with riding crops—Nazis were merely the most effective components of a mythology that I, like other children, sometimes liked to scare myself with; they stood in for Grimms’ fairy tales. Nazis had another function: since I was raised in a strongly liberal household in which one learned not to hate people because they belonged to a certain national or racial group, Nazis were the single commonality onto which one could project fantasies of hatred without the slightest feeling of guilt. And I, like other children, found a guilt-free object of hatred useful.
Little of this changed—which is to say, deepened—over the years, though I developed a certain fascination with movies and TV programs that depicted Nazi horrors, or just Nazi horribleness. Partly this had to do with a forbidden fascination with evil, but there was, as a safety valve, the certainty that that evil had been wiped out. If there was any sort of unconscious or half-conscious process of masochistic gratification at work, it too seemed altogether safe—though when, years later, I read George Steiner’s comment that a long immersion in the literature of Nazi brutality produced in him the feeling that he was reading pornography, I knew what he was talking about.
Evil had its compensations. The absolute evil of the Nazis made our side, my side, at least as it had been in the past, seem absolutely good—regardless of any knowledge I might have picked up to the contrary—and I liked that too. I still like it; today, I have no immunity at all to the political sentimentality of World War II anti-Nazi movies like Casablanca or Passage to Marseilles, let alone to that of stronger stuff like Odette, a film about a British secret agent captured and tortured by the Gestapo, or The World at War TV series, which I have seen at least half a dozen times. In that sentimentality, of course, is a link to the fairy tale sensibility—with a happy ending guaranteed to follow the worst of tales—that I started with.
Because Nazism was a fairy tale and a sentimental melodrama, both cleanly cut off by history, the trial of Adolf Eichmann—the Nazi war criminal abducted from Argentina in 1960 and executed in Israel in 1962—had no real effect on me. Like the Japanese soldiers who keep turning up in the Philippines, still fighting, still refusing to believe the war is over, Eichmann seemed to me a sort of unreasonable anomaly. I knew that many Nazis had found refuge in South America—I had seen Notorious, after all—but I thought of them as inhabitants of a time warp, as relics, as curiosities of history (“Adolf Hitler is alive and well and living in Argentina” did not send chills down the spine of anyone I knew). Eichmann had been in hiding as long as I had been alive, and in those years I had built up a system that proved, emotionally anyway, that his life had ended when mine began. Because he was alive, and real, he had no place in that system, and so I cast him out of it.
Even before Eichmann’s execution I had been to Germany, with a group of students. We spent a good deal of the summer of 1961 in a youth camp that had once served as an SS training station; we visited Dachau, where the group leader, whose parents had both been killed in extermination camps, had a heart attack. I liked Germany, but something of Dachau stayed with me—simply, there was a greater horror there, beneath my feet and in front of my eyes, than my system of all-in-the-past could contain. Later, when we went on to Yugoslavia, the group leader warned us against using any of the German we had picked up. “People haven’t forgotten what the Germans did here,” he said. “You don’t want anyone thinking you’re German.” I remember finding that quaint. At 16, I thought people who lived their lives in reference to the past were less than fully alive.
Years later, I visited Germany with my wife. On our own, things looked different. Everyone knew Germans “didn’t want to talk about the war,” but there was something ominous in the forgetfulness. The driver on the Berlin tour bus chortled over the events of 1945: “Thanks to Hitler, Berlin got itself a whole new city—thanks to the Americans!” The Germans we encountered were obnoxious, arrogant, flesh on the bones of stereotypes. We headed south. My wife decided she wanted to see Dachau; it was on our way. I told her—with a touch of I’ve-been-around condescension, but also with complete seriousness—that if she knew what it would feel like to be there she would not want to go. We went, and drove out of Germany that evening as if we were being chased.Still, these were ghosts to lay to rest. By this time—’67, ’68—equations of the Nazi regime with the American government were common—either on account of Vietnam or political repression—and because of the sentimental fairy tale I carried in my head I accepted some of those equations, or at least did not trouble to dispute them to myself. Nixon, I reasoned, would have been a Nazi, given the chance. And what good was history, if it couldn’t serve as metaphor?
About a year ago, I was watching The World at War again, and enjoying it as I always had. I got a thrill from the aura of nobility that surrounded the fight against Hitler; seeing Passage to Marseilles once more, I wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time, what it must have been like to have fought in a war one knew was right—a feeling my own generation had not had, a pleasure I could contemplate only through a film of nostalgia. Then one night I saw a public television documentary about Lebensborn, the Nazi program devoted to the racial purification of the Reich. Women who had worked in baby-breeding institutions now spoke guardedly of Germans making better Germans. It was ludicrous: the most absurd level of Nazi narcissism, even more distant and unreal than a Sgt. Fury comic book. But then the film shifted into an area I knew nothing about.
It showed how, in Poland and other Eastern European countries, the Nazis would assemble villagers and townspeople. As often as not, the men and women would be shot, or deported. In some cases, as in Lidice, in Czechoslovakia, the children would be sent off to camps to be experimented on; the knowledge gained might prove useful to the SS doctors running Lebensborn. But occasionally there were a few children who were lucky. They were blond; they matched special SS skull and spinal charts; they were very young. Accordingly, they were taken to Germany to be raised by good Germans—ideally, they would benefit from the experiments performed on their neighbors, or their friends, or their brothers and sisters.
In a few years, of course, the war was over. By that time, the kidnapped children had disappeared into the postwar chaos of the Third Reich. Some had no families left; some had come from towns that no longer existed even as places on the map. But the parents of others had survived, and they began to look for their children.
The remainder of the film was devoted to the result of this appalling search. There on the screen were two women, sisters, who, as adults, had somehow been reunited with the remains of their families. In a queer way their terrible stories paralleled my self-induced childhood nightmares of kidnappers and bogymen, but their stories made me shudder at the conceit of those nightmares: while I was thinking them up, these women were living them out. They spoke nervously about the games they had invented, 30 years ago, in hopes of preserving a memory of their parents; about the secret, terrified attempts they had made to resist what was happening to them; about the slow and steady failures of their games and their attempts to resist; about the hideous acceptance that eventually overtook them.
Here were people close to my own age who were just now emerging from Nazism—who had only in the last few years escaped it. Watching them, my sense of “history,” of all-in-the-past, began to dissolve, and as the film continued, it cracked. One saw reporters trying to interview a woman who had been taken from her family in Eastern Europe during the war. Raised in Germany with a Lebensborn family, she still lived there, and had a family of her own. Through an organization formed to track down Lebensborn victims, her mother had located her. But the woman refused to have anything to do with her mother. I have a life, she said. It happened a long time ago. I do not remember my mother. The woman who raised me, here, is my mother. I have a life, leave me alone. The film ended with an appeal to the woman by her natural mother, now very old and living alone. Let me see you once before I die. All these years I have dreamed of seeing you again. All that kept me alive was the thought that I might see you again. All these years I have prayed that you were safe. I am happy for you. I want to see my grandchildren. Why don’t you answer my letters? I am going to die soon. I want to see you before I die.
One can call such an ending dishonest because it smothers the possibility of a pluralistic response to the event. But there may be no authentic plurality of response. I was working as a TV critic when the Lebensborn documentary was aired, but though I made pages of notes, I couldn’t write about it. A sensibility I had nurtured for 30 years had fallen apart—more, in fact, because of those two sisters, who had escaped, than because of the young woman, and the old woman, who had not.
I tried to forget the show, and began a new job, writing about books for this paper; dozens of them, on every conceivable subject, were soon arriving in the mail. One of the first I picked up was Report on Torture, a study prepared by Amnesty International and published as a paperback by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.In it, I read how over the last 15 years torture had become institutionalized in many parts of the world, not merely as an opportunity for personal sadism, or as a means of securing information, but as policy, as the essence of terroristic, totalitarian power, as the foundation of politics. Most of this I knew, though I did not think about it very much. The last section of the book, however, dealt with Chile after the coup against the Allende government. This was a situation I cared a great deal about, and which was real to me; a situation that was part of my life, regardless of how little it had cost me to make it so. Reading, I came across this passage:
…reports of direct Nazi influence keep cropping up. The most persistent report concerns Walter Rauff, once head of the SS in Milan… Rauff, convicted at Nuremburg of mass murder—he devised the mobile gas chambers—escaped to Chile. West Germany has failed in its repeated attempts to extradite him… rumors are that he is directing Pinochet’s prison system, running DINA* [a secret terror apparatus modeled after Brazil’s Death Squad], and planning the work camps for children.
In Germany, years after the fact, two women had broken free of their Nazi kidnappers; in Chile, the story was likely beginning again, not in facile metaphor, but in person, in the flesh. I thought of Rauff, biding his time for 30 years. I could not begin to think about the stories that might be told in Chile 30 years from now, by those who would spend their childhood in Nazi camps. And so, when a publicity agent for a New York publisher asked me if I liked books about Nazi-hunters, I eagerly said yes. I had never read one. Since then I have read quite a few.
*[DINA is widely suspected of having engineered the Washington D.C. assassination of Orlando Letelier—under Allende. Chile’s ambassador to the U.S., and in exile one of the most effective opponents of the Pinochet regime—and of an American woman working with him: an event that took place, as I write, yesterday.]
Rolling Stone, November 4, 1976