A Picture of Heroism, A Picture of Hate

This piece appeared in The Forward (the national Jewish newspaper), August 19-25, 2005

A small photograph in the “Liberation!” exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles reveals not just Nazi intolerance, but our own.

Quite possibly the curators missed it entirely. Or maybe they noticed it, and included it without comment, as a quiet reminder that we, and they, are perhaps not entirely different after all.

I always try to go to mass on June 29th, the anniversary of my mother’s untimely death 26 long years ago. But this year I decided to do something of a different spiritual significance. I attended the “Liberation!” exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles — photos and footage and objects from the moments in the spring of 1945 when the doors of the Nazi concentration camps were thrown open to the world, and when those few remaining within were set free.

I was immediately drawn to a photograph of a couple of dozen dazzling Jewish young women … in prison stripes, in Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British on April 15, 1945. I did some quick arithmetic, and concluded that my mother had been a dazzling Irish Catholic young woman in Brooklyn on that very day, busily tormenting the Irish Catholic young men of Brooklyn who hadn’t yet been sent off to war. Most of the young women in this photo, I suspected, had only been in the camp a very short while — they looked too healthy, too well-fed, too unbowed to have been there very long. And all, without exception, were flashing glorious, breathtaking, resplendent smiles — saved, miraculously, from certain and immediate doom; now, suddenly, with decades not hours of life ahead; their luck so different from the unfortunate Anne Frank and her sister Margot, murdered in this very place only a few weeks earlier.

Next was a July 9th, 1945 letter from an American soldier named “Harry” — recounting his visit to the Backardt camp for his mother. Just when I thought I’d heard every gruesome atrocity that could spring from the Nazi imagination, Harry shares this heartwarming scene with mom: “The girls under twelve who were pregnant were tossed to the dogs, and they were these large German police dogs that when they stand up on their hind legs they’re bigger than the average human being. The Germans didn’t feed these dogs two or three days prior to the event.” Harry didn’t mention how these pre-pubescent girls in the camp had gotten pregnant, but one suspects the perpetrators weren’t the boys in the camp.

The display that probably moved me most, however, was a set of 9 original pages from one soldier’s personal photo album, delicately laid out inside a glass case. The curators here wrote only that the snapshots were taken by “a U.S. Army medical officer” at the Gusen and Ebensee concentration camps. Somehow these seemed more real than the Official Historical Photographs enlarged on the walls – pictures snapped not by a professional photographer, but by an ordinary G.I. with a cheap camera, who happened to be in the presence of history.

The medical officer clearly had sympathy for the victims of Nazi cruelty. “A very pathetic case,” he writes. “A 24 year old German lad (half Jewish) died of tuberculosis.” “A previously wealthy Hungarian businessman — gone berserk in concentration camp.”

My eyes moved on to four U.S. soldiers posing side by side — hale, hearty, on the side of the righteous and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Then, suddenly, I stopped. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I had just seen. I rubbed my eyes. I looked again.

The medical officer’s caption read: “Abe – Myself – Nigger – Stanislaus.”

I peered more closely at the tiny snapshot. Indeed, the third soldier from the left did appear to be African-American. An African-American, apparently for the medical officer, with no name. An African-American, apparently for the medical officer, who was not so much a man as a thing. An African-American, apparently for the medical officer, whose primary characteristic was not his individual identity, but his racial origin.

Does this mean that the United States at this time was “no different” from Nazi Germany? Of course not. Does it mean that our American medical officer was “no better” than, oh, an SS medical officer who assisted Dr. Mengele with his “experiments?” Of course not.

But in 1945 Allied forces liberated Europe from the yoke of a racist ideology taken to its logical consequence. Surely there’s an unfortunate irony in discovering such an unconcealed racist sentiment in the personal photo album of one of the liberators. Why could this man so plainly see the Nazis for what they were, yet so utterly miss the roots of the same attitudes in his own heart? How could he be so eager to remove the speck from his brother’s eye, yet so oblivious to the log in his own eye? And shouldn’t this stunning incongruity cause us to ask ourselves whether any one of us, in another time and another place, might find ourselves lured down a similar road?

What if I’d been born in Dresden in 1920, rather than in Detroit several decades later? That would have made me 17 in 1937, when Hitler was at the height of his oratorical splendor. I would have been young, impressionable, desperate to prove my manhood. And Hitler would have whispered to me – me alone! – that I was the vanguard of a master race. He would have implored me to defend our superior civilization from the enemy untermenschen all around. He would have demanded that the humiliation suffered by the fathers in 1918 now be avenged by the sons.

Would I have been able to view what was going on around me from the perspective of universal morality? Or would I instead have devoured the Fuhrer’s demagoguery, fallen under his spell … and found myself 7 or 8 years later sporting an SS Death’s Head insignia and muscling a screaming adolescent girl into a cage filled with ravenous dogs?

Though older than 17 and perhaps wiser now, I wonder too what kind of moral courage I will manage to assemble if something similar happens in my lifetime, here. It’s not so very difficult to imagine. What if Mohammed Atta’s cousin gets his hands on an atomic bomb, buries it in Grant Park or Central Park or Macarthur Park, and in the blink of an eye murders not 3000 Americans, but 3 million? In our justifiable effort both to defend ourselves and to seek justice for the abomination that had just occurred, might not we — in both our internal and external behavior — stray quite far in the days thereafter from our ideals of democracy and the rule of law?

I’d very much like to believe that in 1937, I would have summoned the nerve to at least ask some hard questions of Hitler and his foul henchmen before joining them on their one-way excursion to the gates of hell. Or that I’ll have the temerity to remonstrate with my neighbors in 2007, if it comes to that, as they bay for indiscriminate responses — in both our internal and external behavior — that might make us little different from the original perpetrators.

But I really can’t say for sure.

Can you?

Posted in Ending Genocide