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28 Jul 98

Holocaust

Quality Human Engineering

I wrote this three weeks ago and was going to keep it for myself, but it's been on my mind.

When I was coming back on the train, after a visit with my brother's family, visiting my mother and father, I realized for the first time what it must have been like. I went down the list, oldest to youngest.

My father would go to the camp--perhaps with me--and the short list of health problems that plagues him would go unmedicated. He is not far from seventy. He would fall on the march, his bad foot gone black. A uniformed man would step over and shoot him in the head.

My mother would disappear into the woman's camp. She is 57 and on a low-salt diet. She might live, she might not. She has incredible strength and will. She might survive.

My brother would be split from his wife and put to work. Like me, he is tall, fat, and strong. He might survive, he might not.

My sister-in-law would be led to the camp with her three children. Like all of us she would have the sick weeks in a crowded train car, standing cramped, trying to keep a grip on the shoulders of her children, and a hold on her sanity. At arrival, her diabetes would be discovered, so she would be killed.

My nephew and neice, seven and five, would now be without mother. They would be killed as well, or perhaps someone would shepherd them into the camp, some cousin or concerned stranger. They would be destroyed eventually--gassed, shot, burnt, or something else.

My one-year-old neice would be put onto the pile with the other babies.

That was my family. Me, I would have the chances of my brother. I am quick and good with my hands, a good negotiator. If I survived, I would live in a world where rape and murder were human currency. The simplest emotions would be stunningly complex, bogged down by impossible cruelty.

There is a lot of thinking about the Holocaust. Countless books, many films, museums in New York and Washington. Universities are beginning Holocaust Studies programs. Racists deny the entire event, insisting Auschwitz is a sham. Films eroticize and condemn the horrors.

When I was fourteen, I read Night, Maus, Man's Search for Meaning. I didn't get it; I just contextualized the cruelty, without questions. This is how people are, I thought. This is what they do. I have read a great deal about Black Slavery. I just learned about the Stalinist purges. And the Bosnia-Herzogovina stories are just being told, and are very confusing.

My goal in writing this down is to always keep my eyes open to these possibilities. In the world, in myself. Few believed the Holocaust as it happened.

I remind myself, whichever side the war might place me: Paul, you never want to know the feeling of power when the motion of your trigger finger is magnified to kill a thousand people.

And Paul, you never want to go to the camps as a victim. Shove your nonviolence aside and kill as many as you can, as they come to the door. One after one, until they kill you, too.

My strongest desire is to dismiss these thoughts as melodrama, and my concerns as silly, but millions of graves contain the bones of those who said, "Don't worry yourself; those things don't happen here."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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