Much has changed since Charlottesville including a sharper focus on extremism in America. For better or worse, my father’s World War II letters are now more relevant than they’ve been in decades. He wrote to my mother when he was a military intelligence officer deployed to France, Belgium, and Germany. Towards the end of the war, he was assigned to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war and saw more than one death camp in the process. He wrote about liberating one of those camps, a rarity in historical documents.
Dad left the original letters to me, but they’re now in the American Jewish Archives where he served as Chief Financial Officer. A swastika recently defaced the American Jewish Archives for the first time in its history. As the alt-right, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis mix together and attach themselves to various causes, I am increasingly called upon to share these letters. Several days ago, I received a text from a favorite colleague, Vincent Ivan Phipps. Vincent is a nationally known storyteller and coach, and also a volunteer with a community television program here in Chattanooga, Point of View. They were about to tape local panelists discussing the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests and Chattanooga’s own emerging controversies concerning a Confederate statue and cemetery.
There’d been a last minute cancellation and they needed a Jewish voice on the panel. Despite nursing a summer cold, I jumped in the car and set off for the station. In the rush, I wasn’t sure what to talk about and discussed options with the producers, including a worldly veteran of the media industry, Maurice Lewis. I mentioned that as a diversity consultant, I’d helped the regional National Military Park devoted to the Civil War in creating a diversity committee. After several moments of silent deliberation, I saw that something else was needed.
I’d brought a copy of The Liberator’s Daughter with my father’s letters and suggested that I read some of them. That got their attention. I was asked to read one of my favorite passages out loud.
1945 - “...The stories of German cruelty and oppression are not just stories—they are the real thing. And much of this was done by what we call ordinary people—not just the party members, but a vast number of common citizens who fell easy prey to the boloney of national socialism. People who were jealous, griped, depraved, and plain scared. A damn few seemed to have the courage to laugh in Adolf’s face—I have met some of them and have only admiration for them because they fought in spite of everything, and know on what side they stand and they have always stood.”
Here’s where we ran into problems with the attention span of the average listener. It gets shorter every year and my soft voice, a holdover from my Bermuda upbringing, compounds the problem. I tried another letter to see if the content could override my island sweetness.
1945 - “...I want to see a complete re-education. A short talk with a boy from Hitler Jugend [Youth] would provide a very clear example. A conversation with a Nazi teacher who claims Germany’s right to enter Czechoslovakia because of 15th century tradition would be another illustration. Well, we can remove the Nazis, make an attempt for re-education—in which, incidentally, we had better succeed—but we have to get deeper also to the cause of this war and the cause of Nazism. Why did this education etc. arrive here in Germany, and what were its causes. I don’t know now, but I am certainly going to try to find out.”
There was a bit of controversy over this excerpt. One of the producers felt that referencing the 15th century was too long ago. Another producer thought it would be relevant given how some civil wars are never over. When the verdict was thumbs down, I offered Dad’s edgier account of the death camp that he and his team discovered:
1945 - “...Nordhausen was a wreck and also the scene of concentration camp leftovers—we saw over 2,000 bodies in one place—the sight and smell are still with me. The gruesome details I’ll omit—suffice it to say that “gruesome” is a weak word for infants and old maids. They are terrible, disgusting, horrifying ...”
No, there wasn’t enough context for this. The odds were too great that listeners would have no knowledge of the camps and the ramifications of them. So, I tried one last time with this letter.
1945 - “...I have talked to enough Germans in the past months fill a good sized of Milwaukee - and all types - Army generals and SA bums (aka storm troopers, Brown shirts), miners and artists, professors and pimps, solid farmers and crafty businessmen, children, octogenarians, whores, and spies. Confront them with the truth and they cannot believe it. An army doctor—a major—once told me that he had been in Russia for a year he had never once heard of any German atrocities – oy, yes they hung a few people one night and forgot to cut down the bodies down for a few days, but everything else was propaganda. He also told me that some of his best friends were Jews, but one night they all disappeared and he never did get around to inquiring about what had happened to them.”
Success! I read the first half of that passage out loud on the air and it led perfectly into a discussion of the growing involvement of regular folks in the alt-right, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi movements. I didn’t get to the part about denial, purposeful ignorance, and self righteous deafness. That would have to wait until I shared the microphone with fellow writers, Ray Zimmerman, Jody Harris, and Finn Bille, at one of Chattanooga’s few remaining bookstores, Star Line Books. Because the pen is mightier than the sword, I write this blog so that my soft voice is heard, as are my father’s words.