- Historic Sites
“those Damn Jews …”
A writer’s poignant memoir of a people whom he had been taught to fear and learned to love in a time of trouble
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
The letter was from Gabe: “If you have come back from Europe without having spent every cent you had, you are no son of mine. Here are a few dollars. Don’t spend them on anything sensible. Love.” I had in fact arrived without money to take a cab with my luggage away from the dock. I wrote Gabe my address in New York. Next week a telegram arrived with money for the fare to Florida and a message buried in his usual way of expressing affection: “Come on down and stew in your own Jews.” I went.
By then I had discovered that Jews were indeed damned, but in ways my hard-eyed neighbor could not have imagined. I had found his kind, those who marched east to die in the snows west of Moscow (he gladly would have joined them) in honor of that pig with the little row of pig bristles on his upper lip. I knew about pigs, that noble animal so abundant in Iowa, and I apologize to them for the comparison.
In Kraków the night before I went to visit Auschwitz so many years and so many deaths later, a German-speaking Polish person had held out his hand toward me, asking, “Do you know what that is?” No, what is it? “That’s a dead Jew.”
Innocent, I asked, “But how do I know it is a dead Jew?”
“Because,” he said, “if it was a live Jew it would be doing this.” He rubbed his thumb back and forth across the palm of his hand as if he were counting money.
Human life is too difficult for people.
At Auschwitz I stood on the caved-in gas chamber by the vent through which the canisters of “Zyklon” gas had been dropped into the room crowded with naked men, women, and children. I felt my Jewish grandfather who had fled Poland, the Cedar Rapids rabbi pointing at things and speaking their Hebrew names, old Gabe battling pain like a boxer, Reba who hired me for a Shabbas goy , the old man in Berlin who loved Rilke’s books, his daughter Rebekah, whose eyes are on me as I write these inadequate words, I felt them walking toward me with their devoted but accusing eyes.
I was back with my own Jews. I was home. The railroad tracks that had carried those suffering people were just beyond the place where I stood. A thin whistle of a train on its way to Krakow. The dead crying.
The white birches trembled their leaves in the white sunlight (the Nazis had called the place Birkenau , “the place of birches”). My feet sank into the concrete. I was too moved to move.