As a boy, when I first learned of the Nazi period, and saw black and white filmed documentation of the worst of their handiwork, I vomited. An appropriate response for a nine year-old that seems as appropriate now, almost fifty years later. Some nightmares followed and then, the reality that Nazis come to power from time to time and lead mobs to do unspeakable things, and that many enraged sociopathic types scattered through daily life are glad to do their personal versions of these things with whatever power they can amass, became the background of my life. The continuing news from all over the world, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, El Salvador, East Timor, Syria and too many other places to list, keeps the reality alive and sickeningly well.
Hitler is supposed to have reassured his colleagues, some time before the meeting in that villa in swanky Berlin suburb Wannsee where the Nazi brain-trust secretly worked out the best way to go about the “Final Solution” — a plan that sounded like a possible public relations nightmare to some of them — “Don’t worry, gentlemen. After all, who today remembers the slaughter of the Armenians?” An excellent question, Mr. Hitler. What about them? He was speaking twenty-five years after the massacre of an estimated million Armenian souls, by the Ottoman Turks.
It is now a hundred years later and the story of the genocide against the Armenians (the word ‘genocide’ was coined, in 1943, to describe what was done to the Armenians) comes as a surprise to most people who hear of it. I myself knew very little about it, beyond the death marches, mass starvation, concentration camps and the fact that German officers witnessed, sometimes in horror, the brutal deportations carried out by their allies, the Turks, during World War One. Then ambassador to Constantinople Henry Morgenthau wrote of the sickening slaughter, and how it was smiled on by Ottoman officials, in terrible detail. The ongoing massacre was apparently regularly written about in the NY Times and widely deplored. But the world was too busy strafing and gassing each other, and cheering the carnage or dying of typhus, to notice as trainloads of Armenians, packed in cattle cars, were taken to concentration camps where they could be gathered to die more efficiently.
Today genocide is so common we use the shorthand “Ethnic Cleansing”, a phrase almost as innocuous sounding as “collateral damage”, the shorthand for that unfortunate externality of war, the murder of non-combatants like babies, five year-olds and senior citizens. In recent years revisionist “scholars” have been claiming the Nazis didn’t really kill people in death camps and surely one day there will be those who deny these other sickening atrocities ever really happened. Like the state-sanctioned mass killing of the Armenians, though it clearly happened, it’s very controversial now, to some. Tutsis mass murdered by Hutus? What?
I saw my father cry twice. Once was at the seder table where he was overcome while dedicating a cup of wine to those slaughtered by the Nazis. His face turned almost purple as he struggled not to cry, and he wept suddenly and violently before quickly pulling himself together. My little sister and I watched helplessly as this etched itself indelibly in both our souls.
“Those people were abstractions, for Christ’s sake, you can’t claim that we were personally effected by Hitler, we never knew any of those people, their letters just stopped coming one day, that’s all, it didn’t effect our family,” my father insisted dismissively (and ridiculously) years later when I brought up the murder of our entire extended family, on both sides. He had been a twenty-one year-old Jewish kid stationed in Germany immediately after the war, a war that had wiped out his mother’s entire town and his father’s as well. Of his feelings about being there he said little, though my sister can also tell you the name of the little dog they adopted on the air base, Schickelgruber, and what happened to the poor mutt when it got under the moving wheels of some heavy vehicle, maybe a plane.
I have always been given to brooding, and thinking too much, it must be admitted. “Think less– do more!” is a mantra I would do well to get in my heart, like today when I am writing this instead of researching and writing things much more practical and badly needed. Still, reading yesterday, for the first time, what actually happened to my grandmother’s large family, and my grandfather’s, and seeing the names of family members in survivor accounts, chills me too much and I cannot do otherwise.
Marched to a prepared ravine on the northern end of town, after two years of random killing and death by starvation, ordered to undress (but for some reason to leave their underwear on) and lie face down, they were shot and covered with dirt by local haters who were paid in the clothing of the murdered to make a devilish layer cake of fresh corpses and earth. Then another terrified group was ordered to undress, lie on top of the previous thinly covered layer of dead bodies, be shot, another layer of dirt, more bodies, repeat as necessary until, by the time I was born, all that would be left of the local Jews was a canyon full of loose bones on the outskirts of Vishnevets. Among them the scattered bones of every member of Sam and Yetta’s families who were still alive in August of 1943.