September 29, 2005
A Picture of Hate
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 the anniversary of my mother's untimely death 26 long years ago. But this year I decided to do something different. I attended the "Liberation!" exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance -- photos and objects and footage 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 dozen dazzling young Jewish women ... in prison stripes, in Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British on April 15. I did some quick arithmetic, and concluded that my mother had been a dazzling young Irish Catholic woman in Brooklyn on that day, busily tormenting the young Irish Catholic 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 camps a short while -- they looked too healthy, too well-fed, too unbowed to have been there very long. And all were flashing the most glorious, breathtaking, resplendent smiles -- saved, miraculously, from certain and immediate doom. Now, suddenly, they had decades not hours of life ahead; their fates were so different from the unfortunate Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, murdered in this very charnel house only a few weeks earlier.
I poked around the exhibit, looking at letters home from liberators, a huge Nazi flag autographed by American soldiers, photos of Gens. Eisenhower and Bradley and Patton -- all rather pale and sickly as they toured the Ohrdruf camp on April 12, 1945 (the day Franklin Roosevelt died).
I moved on to a set of nine pages from one soldier's personal photo album, delicately laid out inside a glass case, taken by "a U.S. Army medical officer" at the Gusen and Ebensee camps. Somehow these seemed more real than the official historical photographs enlarged on the walls -- pictures snapped by an ordinary GI with a cheap camera who happened to be in the presence of history.
The medical officer clearly had sympathy for victims of Nazi cruelty. "A very pathetic case," he wrote. "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.
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 log from his brother's eye, yet be so oblivious to the speck in his own eye? And shouldn't this stunning incongruity cause us to ask ourselves whether we, in other times and other places, might find ourselves lured down a similar road?
The late American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, posted to Moscow in 1944 and watching a long column of haggard, hungry and humiliated German POWs on forced march through Red Square, felt compassion for the young captives (likely destined to starve to death in Soviet camps) and observed that "they are no more responsible for the accident of birth that brought them to this place than are the young Russians who fight against them."
What if I'd been born in Dresden in 1920, rather than in Detroit some decades later? By 1937 I would have been young, impressionable and desperate to prove my manhood. Hitler would have whispered to me that I was the vanguard of a master race. He would have implored me to eradicate the subhuman elements from our superior civilization. He would have demanded that the humiliations suffered by the fathers in 1918 now be avenged by the sons.
Would I have been able to view what was going on from the perspective of some detached, universal morality? Or would I instead have devoured the führer's demagoguery, fallen under his spell ... and found myself seven or eight years later sporting an SS Death's Head insignia, and shoving a pregnant teenage Jewish girl that I myself had raped into a cage filled with ravenous dogs?
I'd very much like to believe that had I been born at that place at that time, I would have mustered the courage to at least ask some hard questions of Hitler's foul henchmen before joining them on their one-way excursion to the gates of hell.
But I really don't know.
Tad Daley (firstname.lastname@example.org), issues director for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), is now peace and disarmament fellow in the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nobel Laureate anti-nuclear organization.