April 15, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
Wednesday, April 15, 2105, is Yom HaShoah in Israel, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” The Israelis remember not only those who were murdered but also those who fought back.
This is what happens at 10:00 a.m.
Unlike a lot of people, I never had any trouble believing that the Holocaust happened. My mother went to college with men who liberated some of the death camps. They told her what they’d seen.
Mom was only sixteen when she enrolled in college.
She was very popular with the boys, because she was able to talk about anything intelligently. Also, she wouldn’t turn against a person who’d told her something awful that he’d experienced.
I keep my own experiences to myself, except in general terms. Most people simply can’t bear to hear about horrible things. My mother understood that former soldiers told her what they’d witnessed and done because they were trying to exorcise the memories. It didn’t work. Of the men my mother knew who saw what the Nazis did, most developed drinking problems and got divorced or fired multiple times.
Back in 1946 men were expected to “get on with their lives.” There was no societal mechanism for coping with indescribable trauma.
There’s a correlation between the demand that former soldiers get on with their lives and the muttering about how Jews should stop “bringing up the Holocaust.” What I’ve discovered is that people apply this pressure for their own sakes. If they hear about something terrible, it reminds them of a problem or problems they themselves have. They’re fragile, hanging on by their fingernails.
One thing Jewish people should never do is let the world force them to “move on.” In my own case, I “moved on” right into alcoholism, drug abuse, and connection with utterly destructive people whom I sought out in an attempt to recreate my formative experiences. The reason I did that—unconsciously, of course—was to try and make the ending come out differently this time.
Holocaust Heroism and Remembrance Day is healthy because it doesn’t sugarcoat or deny.
I’ll relate one story that my mother told me.
One of her friends in college liberated Flossenbürg. He was a member of the 358th Infantry Regiment. To try and hide their crimes, the Waffen SS evacuated about 16,000 inmates from Flossenbürg and Buchenwald between April 15 and 20, 1945. The inmates were put on trains or forced to march toward Dachau. About 7000 died, either from starvation, illness, exhaustion, or Nazi bullets.
Thousands escaped or were freed by Americans along the way. Only 3000 arrived at Dachau. When the 358th Infantry Regiment liberated Flossenbürg, there were only about 1500 inmates left, of whom 200 died before the Americans could save them.
The Americans went out, rounded up as many German civilians as they could, and forced them at gunpoint to view the dead at Flossenbürg. My mother’s friend went to a house that appeared empty, but he was sure that the residents were hiding in the basement. He was one of the 20 percent of Americans descended from Germans, so he spoke the language.
“Come up out of there,” he called down the stairs.
“If you don’t come out in five seconds, I’m going to throw hand grenades down at you.”
He then pulled the pins on three hand grenades and threw them into the basement. After they exploded, he went downstairs and found the bodies of several adults and children. There were no survivors.
According to my mother, he felt nothing about what he’d done.
“You didn’t see those people in Flossenbürg,” he said.
The whole time my mother knew him, he hated Germans. He held them responsible for his nightmares.
I understand perfectly. As I’ve written before, my brother Paul and I came within yards of the Regent’s Park bomb that the IRA set off on July 20, 1982. We turned left instead of right, and a couple of minutes later, the bomb exploded. The pressure wave was like a silent freight train racing past. I’d never heard a real bomb explode, but I knew instantly what it was. It had a strange crashing timbre, like millions of panes of glass breaking.
This was how I looked in 1982.
I feel no connection to that face, even though I still have all the memories contained in that head. It’s very odd, as though the consciousness of someone else were downloaded into me.
In May of 2013, the British arrested one of the prime suspects in the Hyde Park bombing that took place two hours before the Regent’s Park explosion. This IRA terrorist had a British warrant out for his arrest since 2007. However, in the same year he was mistakenly given written assurance by the Northern Irish police that he wouldn’t be arrested, part of the Good Friday Agreement that the British and Irish governments signed to end the decades-long fighting.
A British judge ordered the terrorist freed, since he’d been promised—in error—that he’d never be arrested.
He said he was innocent.
I believe him. How could I not?
Israelis and Jews are better people than me. Thirty-three years later, I’m almost as angry as I was on the afternoon of July 20, 1982. In Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Odessa File, a Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp is told by his British liberator, “If six million of my people had been murdered, I’d build a monument made of skulls. Not of the victims, but of the killers.”
That’s how I feel.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone must agree with me. Each one of us must decide how we handle injustice. There’s no right answer. Actually, on second thought, there are billions of right answers, because your decision is the correct one for you.
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