Late in April 70 years ago, Allied forces, mopping up at the end of World War II, began entering the hundreds of Nazi death camps sprinkled throughout Europe, near metropolises and in countrysides alike. Their emanating scents ignored, their in-plain-sight locales hidden in the vile unconsciousness of ideological righteousness, you might say they were as ubiquitous as McDonalds franchises.
Though I like to consider myself conscientious about Jewish questions, I hadn’t actually thought about the death camps for quite some time. However, as a subscriber to the PBS Frontline newsletter, into my Inbox recently arrived a link to Memories of the Camps, an hour-long film depicting the discovery of the camps and their internal combustions, more often than not a confluence of the banal and the grisly.
Narrated by a wizened Trevor Howard, the viewer is brought through a quick history lesson, including the rise of the Nazi party to power in a politically divided Germany. Many people have assumed that the Nazis rose in an overwhelming groundswell of nationalistic pride, but actually, as Howard points out, though the Nazi party garnered some 17 million votes in the 1933 election, other parties collectively received around 20 million votes and would have come to rule had they been able to form a coalition against the Nazis.
One gets such nuggets of tragedy while the film flows with scene after scene of carnage and depravity, although, to be sure, not on the scale of, say, Shoah. The film reinforces the Hannah Arendt ‘banality of evil’ meme throughout — and very effectively — depicting every day Germans going about their daily business as if the camps were merely places of employment with bad workplace ethics, and the stench of burning human flesh merely another collateral industrial pollutant.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s production is its direction by a young Alfred Hitchcock. You might argue that Hitchcock later became the master of the banal and grisly oleo, and after watching Camps one imagines a young director deeply traumatized by the scenes of ghastly horror he found mixed in with the nonchalance that people come to treat even such camp experiences.
And in one scene it is rather disturbing when Hitchcock shows the shock on the faces of post-war German villagers forced to visit one camp where a table is set up and on which are table lamps with shades made of human flesh. The genuine awe that explodes their naivety is a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock’s later work.
However, the most compelling images are those of the faces of corpses in the piles being bulldozed toward open mass graves. In some of them (and we see a few such moving piles) there are women, their mouths open in Edvard Munch-like screams, the beauty of their facial details mocked by the pale mascara of death. Indeed, the opening scene could have inspired the shower scene in Psycho, after the deed is done, the striking music silent, the beautiful visage still in an eddy of bloody water swirling around the vertiginous drain. A life stilled.
It is now known that the death camps were the Nazi solution to the Jewish Question. I’ve given more reflection to the Jewish Question than most gentiles I know. Though I was christened a Catholic and made it into the orthodoxy so far as making my confirmation, I lapsed rather regularly, until my lapse became agnosticism. The fact is most of the formative influences on my life were Jews. I frankly don’t see how I’d be alive today without the benign, though indirect, influence of Jews in my life.
The first foster home I was in the care of the Rosenbergs, a Jewish family, with three older girls, from the Boston burbs, who had a pond out back with ducks and a willow, peanut butter in giant tins, and who wanted to adopt we three brothers.
Back in 1965, when my single mom had no phone, an old Jewish person next door saved her life when she cut her wrists with mirror shards. Bennett Cerf and Ogden Nash filled me with the delight of puns and language play that became the essence of my lingual shtick a half century later.
Early Woody Allen standup sharpened my sense of society’s farcical relativism, and his early films — Bananas: the decree: the revolutionary dictator’s first announcement to his people: “from now on everyone must wear their underwear on the outside of their pants.” A revolution in humor. Plus, I actually liked the idea.
But there was also Lenny Bruce and his savage humor, all of it on the mark and unwelcome, a kind of anti-hero, a Jewish James Dean, creating the very cliffs he would later be chased toward and driven off by bigots and fascists. Bob Dylan captured the sentiment in his song from Shot of Love.
The first Holocaust narrative I ever read came at 10 years old: Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir that moved me so profoundly that many years later I sought admission to BU just to get a chance at being a student in his class.
Saul Bellow’s Herzog is my favorite novel; each letter therein a layer of being, a nuance of consciousness; unmatched profundity from small things to all the great concepts. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead. And Philip Roth. His story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” was not only funny, but recalled the time when my family was the only Catholics in the all Jewish Boston neighborhood Mattapan.
It was in there that I felt my first burn of shame after slapping one Jeffrey Rosenbaum across the face following a kickball dispute and watching him not strike back but weep. The Jewish mother on the first floor of our three-decker watching, becoming the inspiration, I’m sure, for my later pursuit of philosophy, asking me as I sat alone on the steps, “I’d really like to know what makes you tick.” A question I have pursued in every direction since.
There was Nat Hentoff, my first writing mentor. Abbie Hoffman, my first vision of beauteous political theater, who directly inspired my later application (and admission) to BrandeisUniversity. Revolution for the hell of it, indeed. Why not? The universe does.
There was Lu, my shack-up lover for three years of university life, and now my best friend. Her mother, who gave me prints of the Thames and a vision of a mapped out infinity.
Emily Meyer, for whom I was a teaching assistant, and who later became my most prolific correspondent as I made my way around the world like a Don Quixote without windmills.
There’s Lloyd Schwartz, my best poetry instructor, a man of immense culture and humanity and beauty, who nurtured my raw emotional energy into an Academy of American Poets prize.
Have I had a greater aesthetic/cultural influence on my life than Bob Dylan? I’m tempted to say Marley, but Dylan remains that beautiful mystery and revealer. Doesn’t he? My favorite song is “Love Minus Zero.”
There was Steve Satell, who taught me the leg-hand hook shot. Heinrich Heine, the first poet I ever translated from German. Arthur Rubinsteing, Felix Mendelsohn, Leonard Bernstein, Susan Sontag, Seymour Hersch.
The Israeli brothers who I shared a house with in Rockville, where I worked for the Social Security Administration, and had to be nice processing retirement claims from barbed eyes CIA agents and a German woman who came in one time with a number tattooed on her wrist that broke my heart and made me quit my job.
There was the time I was an Israel commando in the Raid on Entebbe.
These are just a tiny fraction of the Jews who have meant something in my life.
So when I think of the commemoration of the Death Camps, it is not abstract. I think of these, my friends and mentors and influences who have made me who I am — all of them tumbling, rolling, stiff and lifeless piles of love and humanity bulldozed toward an open mass grave by the military industrial complex that was Nazi Germany.
And even as I deplore most contemporary Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the occupied lands, I comprehend with a passionate heart the Jewish proclamation of “Never Again!”
The PBS film is free to all, and is an understated and intelligent glimpse into the thinking and consequences of Nazi imperial insanity, which still has considerable resonance for our times. It was never about Jews, but the endless fight for civilization against all the cancers and malignant angels of human nature.