The first time I went to J.'s apartment (1992) in Davis, CA, I saw the books. Nazi books. And it freaked me out. Because I didn’t realize at the time that publishers of WWII history books had their own sensationalistic marketing strategies just like other publishers. So I assumed that seeing a swastika—this completely deplorable symbol of great evil—on any book cover meant that the book owner was a racist neo-Nazi pig who needed to be beaten to death with my bike lock.
But turns out he was a history major with a keen interest in WWII, and—as such--the books on his shelf were simply his academic reading material.
J. was an amazing historian, in fact. He pulled you into history like it was fiction, and had a way—still does—of detailing the events of world history like they were still happening. His grasp of dates and facts was astounding, and the way he explained the war—and other events--from a historical perspective was utterly enlightening and mindbendingly attractive. In our first few years together, I respected him for his knowledge and learned things about the world that I never knew. I still have hopes that he will one day pursue his dream of being a history teacher. Because—no matter what has passed between us—there is an entire generation who could be spurred on to greatness by having history detailed in a personally interesting and intellectually graspable way.
It was such a great thing that J. could explain away the Nazi books with an academic major that encouraged the populating of his bookshelf with such ugliness. Because there’s only two things that make me go totally bat-shit freaking crazy: cruelty to animals, and the horrors of The Holocaust.
J. was a pretty smart guy. And learned rapidly not to talk about his German pride. Because he’d already made that mistake, early on, by telling me how his grandmother was raised in Germany and how she—and her family and friends—had had no idea what Hitler was doing to the Jews. That her brother had even served in the German army and didn’t know. He told me that there was the SS and then there was the regular German Army, and that it was the SS who knew that people were being rounded up and taken away, but those in the regular army had no idea.
And, early on, I was pretty clear with him: Bull-freaking-shit, J.!
I told him I just didn’t believe it. Would never believe it. Hitler, I said, was very clear in his messages to his people about the Jewish “problem”--that they must be eliminated or the world will suffer—and even if they didn’t go on field trips to visit the freaking camps, J., certainly they saw their Jewish neighbors, friends, and countrymen taken away. Certainly they saw these people’s belongings ransacked. Certainly they saw the acceptance of hatred that was gripping their nation. And certainly they wondered—with the compassion I’m sure some of them possessed--what they could do to stop it and yet STILL decided to do nothing.
I was clearly beyond my mind--rage-filled--as I accused his grandmother of being a deceitful liar. So he made the smart decision at that time to agree with me.
After that, J. tread pretty lightly on the German talk. And any time his grandmother or grandfather (deeply interested in Nazi lore) would talk about the war, I’d subtly stop listening or leave the room, lest they say something that brought out my crazy.
As someone who is nearly always on the side of thinking the best about people—and isn’t Jewish, or particularly indignant about anything—my strong view on this was/is very out of character. But I’ve always kind of given myself a pass on it and allowed myself—without guilt—to openly embrace my strong views on it.
Because I really can't help it. The Holocaust reaches inside my soul and tears open a long-dormant primal rage that is so adrenaline-soaked it's unable to temper it's own viciousness. A rage that ignores my higher-self, and powers fantasies in which I go back in time and am able to individually capture each German involved, and string them up like that final scene in The Berkut. Where the Russians have Hitler in a cage--suspended, and not big enough for him to stand or lie down--eating scraps of food and sitting in his own waste.
So I can't help it. I really can't
Ends up, the next time it ever came up was during the first disagreement I ever got into with my mother-in-law. Which also ended up being the last in-person conversation we ever had.
It was in 2006, on our very surreal trip out to Virginia for Thanksgiving. This was the trip when J. inexplicably drove the girls and I six hours one way to meet his office assistant, who I found out later was also his mistress. Five quick months later I’d be getting divorced.
I’d always given J.’s mom a pass on her know-it-all, controlling, distant behavior during our relationship. Like when she told me (before I had even thought of asking her) that she’d never come over to babysit Julia. And when she told me I was a fool not to let Julia (my preemie) cry it out at night. And for a thousand other things. I always gave her a pass because she had been the only child of a strict German mother, and a strict American father—who’d both rather criticize than hug her—and yet she still seemed to value the same things that I did. She was tender-hearted to animals, and had never—in 13 years of knowing her—exhibited any sort of German pride indicative of defense of their part in the war. We had always gotten along well, and there was never any hostility between us.
But that last trip to Virginia was quite a game changer. Because she—in a conversation unrelated to Germans or Germany--said:
“You know, Hitler actually did a lot of good for Germany. Before him, there was no food, and their money was worth nothing. He brought Germany out of a really hard time. The trains ran on time, and the country was getting itself together.”
I was shocked. That someone—especially a German—would dare to speak of Hitler in this way. That from the mouth of the daughter of a native German mother who had lived in Germany during the war and whose brother had fought in the German army there could be spoken—without any self-consciousness—words indicating that there was a freaking bright side to such unadulterated, blatantly horrible evil.
Because—let’s face it--the job of Germans alive during that time isn’t to tell their side of the story. The job of Germans is to keep freaking quiet and feel an appropriate level of guilt until an appropriate amount of time has passed. Like freaking eternity. The job of those Germans is to atone forever for their lackadaisical self-indulgence; for accepting a leader who spewed hate against their neighbors but who—hey—gets the trains there on time. Because who really gives a shit what he did for Germans or Germany. Because whatever he did for Germany only had the effect of making Germans more complacent and willing to ignore the savagery that they gave taxes in the name of. Oh, your trains late? Cue the freaking pity party. Would you like to try an on-time train to the nearest death camp?
Part of me wishes that I had said what I felt. But what would that have accomplished? I wouldn't have changed her mind. Because she wanted to believe in the version of WWII Germany that her mom had told her about. So I just gathered my elder-respect together and said, “He killed 6 million people. He tortured and killed children. What he did for Germany isn’t really the point.”
I sucked it up. And wonder if what I did say had any effect. And hope that she has since realized that she can think whatever the hell she wants about Germany and Hitler but--guess what--saying it out loud is entirely freaking optional.
Because it just isn't time yet. It just isn't time for German pride yet. I just don't think that enough time has passed.
This morning I heard an interview with Joel Grey on NPR. He endeared himself to me immediately because of the way he talked to the little dog that he so ostentatiously brought with him. He was sweet and affectionate to Miguelito (sp?), and seemed genuinely happy and down-to-earth. The interview was promoting the 40th year celebration of the movie “Cabaret”—a movie which depicts the rise of the Nazi party from the standpoint of the employees of a Berlin nightclub--for which Joel won awards for his role as the German MC, a role for which—because he had no firsthand knowledge of Germany or Germans—he prepared for using the experiences Hal Prince had while stationed in Germany.
At one point, he talked about what it was like for him--a Jew who had never been to Germany--to finally go there to film the movie.
Interviewer: What was it like to work in Germany in that time.
Joel Grey: I got to the airport. We landed, in Germany, and I had always had an icky feeling about going to Germany as a Jewish person. But, I thought, I’m going to do something wonderful, that I’ve always wanted to do. With great people.
So I got myself ready to get off the plane and the minute I stepped on to German ground, I collapsed, sobbing.
I had no idea [that he would have this reaction].
I think it was probably that collective memory. Of people somewhere that I belong to. Or that belong to me. But it was intense.
And then, there was a resistance from the crew. Who didn’t want to be reminded of the horror that they had gone through. They sorta thought “Oh, we’ve been reminded enough.”
Interviewer: The German crew was hesitant? They didn’t quite know…(can’t hear)
Joel Grey: Yeah. You know. They’ve got a lot of guilt.
I could feel this Jewish man's compassion for the Germans, and it brought out the compassion in me. For Germany. The Germany of today. And the people who are alive now, who have never known a time before their country committed such atrocities. Who have learned from the errors of their forefathers and mothers, and would never make those same horrible choices, but still have to see their country’s name in the history books right next to “Adolf Hitler” and photos of starving children behind barbed wire.
And this compassion sparked an idea.
That maybe we all share some manner of culpability for the horrors perpetrated by our species. That maybe the separation between people and nations is illusive, and the guilt one country takes on can belong to us all—simply by virtue of being the same type of human animal capable (under the right conditions) of making those same types of horrible mistakes. Unless we tap into our compassion and learn from each other.
In that light, maybe the history books of the future will show that Germany took one for the team—the team consisting of our entire species—because, from their hideous behavior and resulting shame and guilt, we have all looked upon the life cycle of an atrocity and witnessed together it's utter futility. And now--because of it all--we are better able of moving on as a collective, promising each other to rally next time, and be stronger, and brave enough in the future to live up to, "Never again."