Nuremberg, Time And Memory

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We are standing in a semicircle around the guide in one of the barracks. She gestures toward scarred, stained three-tiered bunks and explains how many bodies were crowded into each. She points to a crude pit and tells us that it served the natural functions of a thousand women daily. The floor is earthen, and I can feel the cold and damp through my shoes on this raw day. I tremble in my thick, lined jacket. My wife’s face looks blue with cold. I close my eyes, and listening to our guide’s brisk, clipped German, I can imagine an SS matron spelling out the camp rules to a batch of shivering newcomers during another cold long-ago November. Those inmates wore nothing but striped cotton uniforms, thin, cheap, reused again and again. I remember one camp survivor telling me that in winter the guards enjoyed dousing the prisoners with a fire hose.

The effect of Auschwitz is to overwhelm and numb, to rob us of defining words. The silence is defeating. What can these soundless sheds, these tidied-up husks tell us? The imagination must supply the stench, the moans, the shrieking, day in and day out, that became as common as traffic noise in a city.

I have interviewed 8th Air Force veterans who bombed Germany. They spoke wryly about carrying out “instant urban renewal.” Nowhere is the effect of their labors more evident than in Berlin, my final stop abroad. What was rebuilt in West Berlin resembles nothing so much as a limitless expanse of pricey shopping plazas. The preserved ruins of the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church on the Kurfiirstendamm retains more wounded grace and dignity than any of the antiseptic postwar structures that surround it. Former East Berlin, with its mile upon mile of soulless housing flats, makes West Berlin look almost quaint.

The Berlin Documents Center is located at the end of a secluded street in a wooded residential suburb. From the outside the center looks like any large, comfortable home, its official character betrayed only by a high fence and a sign reading HALT . One can easily imagine it as the residence of a midlevel Third Reich bureaucrat, later taken over as a CIA safe house during the long, covert Cold War waged between East and West Berlin.

The center is still being run by the Americans. That situation is soon to end, we are informed by the director, David Marwell. The Germans are eager to take over this repository of World War II records, and will do so in July, forty-nine years after V-E Day, under an agreement signed last fall. Past and present again intertwine. The Center’s old Nazi membership lists are invaluable for establishing pension rights. Service in the Waffen SS, for example, the military arm of Heinrich Himmler’s dread apparatus, is pensionable in Germany.

I locate here unpublished documents describing how Allied officials worked out the plan for executing the men condemned at Nuremberg. The victors faced a dilemma. They wanted not a trace to remain of these people, not a grave, an urn, a relic, nothing that could one day become a shrine. And so they had the executed men, plus the suicide Goering, cremated and their ashes dumped secretly into an obscure stream. On the other hand, they wanted the world to know beyond a doubt that these Nazis were dead. No myths were to sprout of a Goering, a Frank, a Kaltenbrunner living on in some Alpine aerie or South American sanctuary. I was now looking at the Allies’ solution. The earthly remains were indeed obliterated. But first photographs were taken of Goering and the men just hanged, left, right, frontally, and stripped naked. Most of these pictures had never been released.

THE GERMANS ARE EAGER TO TAKE OVER THEIR WORLD WAR II RECORDS; SERVICE IN THE WAFFEN SS, FOR INSTANCE, HIMMLER’S MILITARY ARM, IS PENSIONABLE.
 

I am in a motel just off Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs, gazing out the window at a cloudless sky and the encroaching Rockies. The stunning view breaks a spell. I have been in this room for five days surrounded by cardboard boxes. They hold the papers of Col. Burton C. Andrus, commandant of the Nuremberg prison during the trial. They have been provided to me by his son, Burt, Jr., a retired Air Force officer now living in Colorado Springs.

The Andrus papers contain everything from a top-secret order covering up one of the three prisoner suicides that occurred at Nuremberg to the defendants’ psychological profiles. As I resume my search, the motel room recedes and the stale imprisoned air of Cellblock C envelops me. I see a POW trusty delivering books to the defendants. I know what the Nazis read from checkout slips. I know what they had for breakfast on any given day and the date of their last rectal examination. I feel the winter damp of dingy masonry walls, hear GI guards annoying the prisoners with endless choruses of “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” It is all here in dog-eared folders, old mimeographed reports, smudged third carbons.