by iampunha | 10/01/2008 08:00:00 AM
Fifteen years ago, give or take a few, I walked into my grade school library. The librarian was new, and I was curious.

But in the way children are curious about what their parents and other people's parents did, I was curious about what her parents did.

"My father," she told me, "was a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials. For the prosecution."

I had little idea what these things were. I had some clue of what the prosecution was (its function within the justice system), but the Nuremberg trials?

"After the war, some of the Nazi leadership was put on trial for war crimes. And my father helped convict them."

For Sir Richard Harris, Walter Mathau and Jimmy Carter, born on Oct. 1 1920, 1924 and 1930, respectively.

It was not so long after I found out that Mrs. Frank's father had prosecuted war criminals that other pieces of that story happened into my life.

In eighth grade, we studied World War II. Part of that experience involved reading Night; I put it off until the last minute, expecting (because it was assigned) that it would be boring, and I ended up reading every fucking page of that book in one night.

Not skimming, reading. I felt a connection to Elie — that's how I thought of him then, as a teenager in a concentration camp, with me in a hellish school setting I thought was as bad, on some levels, as his setting. (We asked the same questions, were reviled for situations beyond our control, and questioned the being supposedly with a plan in spite of all of this.)

As another part of that unit on World War II, a woman in her 70s came to talk to us about the Holocaust.

As in, what it was like.

As in, to survive when such a man as Hitler is trying to kill you.

She spoke with a fairly thick accent, such that to understand her, you had to focus pretty intently on her.

That wasn't so hard. With the story she told,


And while time stopped, she was not a 70-year-old woman with a thick accent talking to us about the 1940s.

She was a 20-year-old woman trying to survive in the dead of winter in a German concentration camp.

Those whom famine, disease and random acts of active destruction (as opposed to the passive destruction of starvation) had not killed were forced to march. For how long, I do not remember. But I remember that she told us her father had told her that when they began to march, she was to wear her ski boots.

I did not then understand how she could have secured her ski boots, but I was glad she had. For, as she told us that day, "Girls to my left and right were snapping their toes off like twigs in the foot-thick snow. But I had my ski boots on, so my feet were saved."

That image -- that sound -- how that becomes not a nightmare but a memory ... I hope nobody ever has to come to terms with. Because as she told this story, it was as a nightmare. It was as a fact of life, another part of the horrific redefining of reality in the 1940s for so many millions of people (many of them Jewish, many of them not).

While researching another diary, I remembered this event. I always remembered that I'd met a Holocaust survivor, but I didn't remember much about her except that she was, to my uneducated self, fatter than I had expected. (The reasoning behind this is as irrelevant as it is irrelevant.) And I remember asking my mother shortly thereafter why she would be fat and not skinny, as she had been during her time in the Holocaust. And being allowed to ask that question, and not being shunned, is as important as is the answer. We do not understand the tough elements of how we work unless we ask the awkward questions.

My mother, with the patience of ... a very patient person, explained to me that people who have lost everything, who grew up without much, or who have been through very traumatic events tend to hoard, and that includes food.

(Years later, I am seeing the same thing happen to my parents, and to me. We are none of us gaining weight, but throwing things away is very hard. How do you know you will never need it again?)

Many years later, I remembered the bit about the ski boots. And that, some months ago, was enough to find her then. And I have not forgotten her since.

And now, neither will you.

Ladies and gentlemen, Gerda Weissmann Klein.

This is what I mean when I say Elie Wiesel won.

Gerda Weissmann Klein came to my city last month to help promote a reading campaign. The book selected for the One City, One Book program was "All But My Life." I regret very, very deeply that I wasn't able to see her again and thank her for ... frankly, what she has been to me and to humanity. I am only happy that other people have a deeper appreciation for their lives because of hers, and she because of how theirs were moved by her.

Some of the men who tried to kill Gerda Weissmann Klein (my writing style is such that I often use last names after first reference, but I don't normally do that with people like Holocaust victims because they are names now where once they were numbers), and who did kill her friends and relatives, were sentenced 62 years ago today to die for their crimes.

Of the 24 indicted in the first (and more famous) Nuremberg Trials, 12 were sentenced to death. One more killed himself before the trial began, and a 14th was alive in name only (senile and bedridden) a few years before the trial began.

One was acquitted in the first trial but not in a subsequent. Another was acquitted and lived his life in relative peace. And the third was an economist whose story is worth telling another day. You probably haven't heard of him. You undoubtedly should.

So that leaves us with seven men. Two got 20 years, one 15 years, one 10 years and the remaining three life in prison, which was only 11 years for one, nine for another and 41 for Rudolph Hess, who gradually became a sympathy case among some U.S. and foreign politicians because he was insane. (Those of you who don't like Nixon much may find yourselves liking him even less after finding out that he was in favor of releasing Hess.)

Sixty-two years ago today, 12 men were sentenced to die for their crimes.

They and their cohorts were responsible for the murders of between 9 and 11 million people.

Justice? Not for me to decide, I think. But I'm not sure there can be adequate justice in a court of law following such destruction.

Sixty-two years after the first of the Nuremberg Trials ended, Nazi is a bad word, Hitler is reviled by the most educated and the most ignorant, and Holocaust denial is a crime in many European countries.

Justice? It seems to me, from what I have read on the Holocaust and its victims and survivors, that justice is inched closer to when we do not stop talking about what happened, do not let people grow up without knowing what happened.

Justice, in this case, is about reliving history on your own terms so it doesn't become the past on someone else's.




Blogger Debrah on 10/02/2008 7:46 AM:

***** An FYI for all illustrious historians. *****

The incomparable Professor KC Johnson's updated version of the book about the internationally-publicized Duke Lacrosse Hoax has just arrived in stores.

This is the updated version, with a new chapter, in paperback.

See also, here.

His writing style is to die for.