Reviling Revisionists

Railway tracks leading into the Auschwitz conc...
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Reviling Revisionists

“When you go in, there is a sign that says, there were ‘four million’. I broke down about halfway around Auschwitz, walking away from the wall against which 20,000 people were shot.  It was not the stark physical evidence of the living conditions….It was not glass displays where wretchedly tattered children’s shoes lay on angled boards.  It was not the room full of suitcases with the owner’s names written faithfully to mark their only belongings or heaps of human hair and the tailors lining that was made from it….It was all of these things and more cumulatively crushing you, a seeping evil from every wall and corner of the place, from every brick and block, until you reach your limit and it overwhelms you.  For a short while I found myself crying, leaning against the wire.  Like they tell you – the birds do not sing here. – Pete Davies, “All Played Out “

Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently hosted an international gathering in Tehran where he pronounced the Holocaust a myth and suggested if Israel could not be eliminated , perhaps it could be moved to Europe.  I rarely get angry at the rhetoric and shenanigans of posturing world leaders, whether it be our own Congress or petro-authoritarian despots whose boldness and poison rise with the price of every barrel of oil.  However, after hearing Ahmadinejad, I was sick with rage.

Above my desk at home, rests a picture I took of a Star of David scratched by human hands inside the only remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz, Poland.  In 2002, on a business trip to Warsaw, I felt compelled to visit the ancient city of Krakow and confront some of the demons that had plagued me since college when I took a brilliant class called Holocaust taught by three educators – a psychologist, a historian and a literature professor.

Poland is a haunting country.  It’s never been a sovereign nation for more than fifty years before a neighbor has conspired to invade it or eliminate it. It stretches from the great plains along the River Oder to the endless Russian Steppe to the east.  To the South are the magnificent Tatra Mountains and in the North Gdansk where Lech Walesa led his fellow dockworkers to fracture the iron grip of the communism.  Poland was also the scene of some the greatest  crimes committed against humanity at places like Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Rogoznica.  As The Final Solution played out across Europe, Auschwitz served as one of 49 sub-camps supporting German industry with forced labor.  The largest camp , ten times the size of Auschwitz, was Birkenau which at its peak “ operating efficiency” killed 24,000 men, women and children in a single day.

Within blocks of my hotel in Krakow, across the misty Wisla River stood the silent corridor that had served as the jewish ghetto of Kazimierz.  I still shudder at the scene from Schindler’s List when the SS are rounding up Kazimierz Jews – – the windows of the walled off ghetto illuminated by strobe bursts of machinegun fire and of course, the screams.  Those that were transported out of the ghetto ended up at Auschwitz or Plaszow, an overflow camp run by the infamous commander , Amon Goeth

The first thing I saw when I entered the gate at Auschwitz was the forged saying at the top of the entrance – – Arbeit Macht Frei: Work Sets You Free.  People walked there with linked arms as if trying to brace themselves against the unspeakable evil that still permeated the skeletal remains of hell.  They sobbed quietly, speaking in hushed, reverent whispers.  Visitors wore blue scarves to indicate they were “survivors” who, now  returning to the camps, were facing the demons and horrors that they had endured.  The barbed wire is rusted now but it tears at you as you imagine naked men, women and children stripped of any possession and dignity, being led into “ showers” before they were purportedly to be put to work.  Inside the lightless, rectangular room, Zyclon B pellets were dropped into a narrow pipe set into the low ceiling. The pipes that promised a first shower in weeks were merely cosmetic – – deceptively attached to a ceiling that held only death.

In Birkenau, three kilometers down the road, Mengele would prowl the children’s playground at twilight.  The inmate children called him “ uncle” because he would give them candy as he studied them to see which might be selected for his experiments.   There were over 700 hundered children in barracks 16a, where I walked through haunted rooms and still, dark alcoves, staring at a mural painted on a wall showing children marching toward a red school house with a smokestack spewing ash into the sky.  Flames shot out of the crematorium chimneys like something out of the Inferno.  “ Let us not speak of them but look and pass on.” – – a line from Dante’s Inferno crossed my mind as I thought of my own children ages 13, 11 and 8.

As the trains arrived each day through ominous grated gates, the cattle cars purged sick and dead passengers on to a platform blinded with lights, barking dogs, SS officers and Mozart screaming from loud speakers. I remember staring at rooms of children’s shoes, human hair, lamp shades made from human skin and photographs that cause a soul to cry to the heavens for understanding as to how God could let something like this occur.  The answer back is always the same – – people let this happen and people can prevent it.  How was it that the Nazi propaganda machine dehumanized an entire race of people ?  A vacumn of power and the slow relinquishment of human rights gave rise to fascism and totalitarianism.  People seemed indifferent and relieved that they were not the ones to be persecuted or singled out….The camp seems to whisper “ Evil prevails when good men do nothing ” I remember reading that in the darkest hours of Auschwitz a Polish clergyman sacrificed himself by assuming the identity of another prisoner, so that a man he did not even know might live.  I read of a woman who cared for 40 children while slowly dying of starvation.  Even amid the death and dehumanization, the sheer triumph of the human spirit could not be suffocated.  God was in every corner of that camp.

Armed with the knowledge of what I was witness to that harrowing spring day in May, 2002, I carry a burden and a responsibility.  I read in the paper of Iran’s commitment to wipe the descendents of this tragedy off the face of the earth.  I see 400,000 people dead in Darfur where genocide and dehumanizing indifference are once again playing out in a world distracted by petro-politics and a changing world order.  I realize it is only through the action of individuals that God can see his plans realized on earth.  That means having the guts to stand up and say we will not stand for genocide or another Holocaust.  We will fight tyrants who perpetuate these horrors and we will simply say, “ never again”.

Midnight In The Garden of Fruits and Vegetables

Midnight in The Garden of Fruits and Vegetables

As children of the Depression, my parents were constantly seeking life experiences that would socialize his four boys to the realities of a “ life without options”.  My Dad’s definition of hell, ( besides being stuck in an elevator with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and the Reverend Al Sharpton ), was a life in which you had few choices – – an existence where one was trapped in a job they hated or in a financial situation which they had neither the education nor resources to overcome.  He was determined to make sure that we had a glimpse into what life might be like if we did not learn to apply ourselves.  I can still hear Tennessee Ernie Ford forever playing ….“ You shovel sixteen tons, and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt. St Peter don’t call me ’cause I can’t go.  I owe my soul – – to the company store”.

As each son came of age, my parents would “help” us find summer employment.  The critical prerequisites were: 1) The job must be lucrative enough to finance our upcoming annual college living expenses 2) It must be some form of manual labor 3) It should be in a neighborhood far enough from home that we must take public transportation ( the bus ) to and from work every day.  Now for some New Yorkers, this seems like pretty tame stuff.  But for a suburban kid from LA whose closest encounter with real life was summer camp in Pasadena and trips to the Coliseum in South Central, the trauma of this first summer job was a life changing event.

Like a prisoner on death row, I counted down the days until summer vacation when I would become indentured as a produce dock worker toiling on graveyard shift ( 6PM to 6AM in a warehouse for a major grocery store chain.  My “ so-you –know –what –a-life-without-options-feels-like “ job involved driving a hydraulic loading jack, stacking 6’ high pallets of produce orders and loading them on to refrigerated trucks destined for stores throughout the western US.

My first night, I rode along with “ Jeff “, a high school drop out, father of a one year old by his latest girlfriend and making $ 35,000 a year – – all before the age of 20.  “It’s good money, dude.  I just bought a truck and my girlfriend and I put a down payment on a condo.”  He was all hair, sinew and leather gloves.  While weighing no more than 160lbs wet, he could toss huge boxes of romaine lettuce, sacks of potatoes and frozen broccoli like pillows.  He prided himself in filling orders quickly and aspired to catch our supervisor’s attention.  “Another few years of kicking ass on the floor and I get Jerry’s job “.  Jerry was the dispatcher.  He sat in an air conditioned office, barked into a loud speaker as produce manifests spit off a mainframe printer.  He prioritized the requests and distributed the assignments to the men on these flying carpets of steel.

My friends names that summer were not Bob, Steve or Tom, they were Armando, Eddie, Richie, “X” and Ray.  The warehouse was a dangerous place.  Industrial accidents were common as slippery floors and speeding fork lifts collided with the pressure to make the nightly quotas.  I witnessed a compound fracture one night as a fully loaded fork lift smashed a pallet jack into a wall crushing the loader’s foot.  I remember how angry some of the men got because an industrial injury hurt their spotless workers compensation record and prevented them from the possibility of a month end bonus for being injury free.

We ate lunch at midnight.  The guys would go out for beers at 6am.  Most were married with mortgages, kids and obligations that required them to be on-time, at work when sick and always meeting quota.  I was working harder than I ever had in my life and was barely making quota.  Guys would pitch in to help me at the end of the night just to be sure I did not fall behind.  I felt like one of the Morlocks in HG Well’s Time Machine, toiling underneath the earth, a dull carnivore laboring out of instinct while my friends, the lotus eating Eloi, sat on the beach all day sunning and reading poetry.

My social life was reduced to the hours of 1PM to 5PM each day.  I would wake up with swollen hands and a sense of dread like Prometheus knowing that in a few hours my liver would once again be devoured.  I would sit like a lobotomy patient watching a string of soap operas.  My best friends that summer were Luke and Laura and the gang at General Hospital ( Where is Port Charles anyway ? ).

My low point was about half way through the summer when I finally started to get my sense around the warehouse.  I was called into the Dock manager’s office ( you know,  the silhouetted guy on the TV show Deal or No Deal ).  I was getting ready to humbly thank him for noticing how hard I was working when he warned me that if I did not “ pick it up”, I would be let go.  I wanted to shout  “ look, I hit .452  this year on our baseball team. I don’t need your approval!” Yet, I was deflated.  As I walked out Armando took me aside and said, “you got the talk, eh amigo?“ I nodded, looking away in case the old eyes started to leak saline. “It’s alright brother.  Everyone has had the talk from “Manager Bob”.  It’s part of making sure you never forget that he controls what happens around here.  That’s why we have a union.  Keeps things balanced, you know”

The days and nights bled in to one massive twilight.  I finished my tour of duty knowing well that I barely pulled my weight.  I hugged each new friend knowing that we would probably never see one another again.  They knew I was off to college and were depressed at the thought that if I came back in ten years many of them might still be there flying through the air on their steel machines.  I did not leave thinking I was better than these men.  I realized they tolerated and accepted my ignorance to the obligations of real work.  I understood that there was more to hard work than I had ever imagined.  Integrity meant showing up and doing your best every day in a job you may not like.  I drove away.

I see their faces every day in toll booth operators, assembly line workers, municipal workers, maintenance workers and even the truck driver that roars past me on the highway late on a humid summer’s night loaded with produce.  I always wonder if I knew the guy that packed that truck.  I knew for certain I would never want that job but I grew to understand that people should not be valued by their net worth but by their work ethic, character and integrity.  My dad smiles when I tell this story because he knows I learned my lessons well.  My wife likes it for different reasons.  When she sends me to the store, I actually can distinguish jicama from ginger root.