Irving Kahn, Wall Street investment banker, died this week at age 109. His son said that if longevity was a combination of luck, DNA and right living, in his father’s case, it must have been luck and DNA, because his father didn’t pay a lot of attention to right living (OK, I am paraphrasing a bit). The same can be said, I think, for all of us whose DNA is (at least for some period of time) American, and who have had the luck to live in a country and at a time when we never had to face the devastation of war personally.
Looking at the headlines in today’s New York Times about the fate of Assyrian Christians in Syria after murderous attacks by Islamic State forces, and other articles throughout the paper, it is clear that everyone today does not share our geographic DNA, nor our luck. The world is a mess, and it seems increasingly so.
But are the times unusual? Perhaps not as much as it appears. The other day, we visited the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin TX, where we slowly walked along the time line paralleling the life of President Johnson (1908-1973). The world was a mess then, too, with new crises arising every day, whether in Vietnam and surrounding South East Asian countries, or Cuba, or the Soviet Union, or Eastern Europe, or yet to be recognized Communist China.
Sometimes I obsess about world calamities. Other times, I try to ignore them and just go on with my business. What the better path is, I don’t know, but about two weeks ago, I realized that I was overloading on obsession. I was then in the middle of three books – John Keegan’s highly detailed “The First World War” (1998), Tuvia Friling’s thought provoking “A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz” (English translation 2014), and Fazel Rahman Fazel’s depressing but instructive “Shadow Over Afghanistan” (1989). I am still (slowly, and somewhat methodically) reading the Keegan book, but I have finished the other two, and it’s time to take stock.
Growing up, I didn’t know very much about Afghanistan (no surprise, there), except its stamps were hard to find for my collection. Shortly after I moved to Washington in the late 1960s, I met a man (he was probably about ten years older than I was), who was from Kabul. In my naive way, I was shocked. He was tall and thin, he was clean shaven with a close cropped haircut, he was impeccably dressed in a light tan suit, white shirt and tie, he spoke (as they say) “the King’s English” very well, and if you had to describe him in one word upon first meeting him, that word would be “civilized”. He could not have been more different from what I would have thought my first Afghan would be like. Years later, I was speaking with a friend, who told me that, after he college graduation, she had served in Kabul in the Peace Corps. I asked her what it was like, and she described an attractive, comfortable city, friendly and modernizing. She had also been there in the mid-1960s.
Fazel Rahman Fazel was a young resident of Kabul at about this same time. His father was an importer/exporter, and the family was very well off, living a comfortable wife. His father sent young Fazel to Germany to work in his business, and Fazel became acquainted with European life, attracting first an American girl friend, and then a German girl friend. His German girl friend traveled to Kabul and (very unusual for the time, to be sure) became the wife of Fazel, now a young law school graduate. After a number of years, Fazel’s wife returned to Germany, having failed to have a child, telling her husband that he should find another wife, so that he could have a family. He was very unhappy at her decision, and equally unhappy when his father told him that he had arranged for Fazel to take a second wife, this time a young woman he had not met, the daughter of a wealthy business associate of his father’s. The wedding was held and, to Fazel’s surprise, he and his new wife hit it off, and had three children, while Fazel became a prominent government prosecutor.
This story made for interesting reading, to be sure, but then came the 1970s, when the Afghan government began to move closer to the Soviet Union and there was increasing divisiveness in the country’s politics. In 1978, there was a Communist coup, and local Marxists took control of the country. To stabilize the situation, the Russians moved in and, faced with local resistance, launched a full scale invasion in1979 and took control of the country. Chaos reigned in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan as the Soviets bombed and terrorized their way, focusing their attention on those elements of society and individuals most likely to be in opposition. This of course included the wealthy business class (Fazel’s parents were both shot and killed in the courtyard of their home), and two other classes to which Fazel belonged – former government officials, and educated intellectuals. As the country disintegrated into irrationality, those opposed to the Soviets (and in particular the religious classes) created an underground movement, and fled to the rural areas, especially the rugged mountains marking the country’s border with Pakistan. The Mujahedin movement was started.
Told he had to flee Afghanistan, Fazel’s trip to Pakistan was eventful to say the least – a month with Afghan guides in the mountains, escaping (barely at times) Russian patrols and bombers, people dying all around him, Fazel eventually made it to Pakistan (there were approximately 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, says the book, mostly living in UN sponsored tent cities near the border. Getting to Pakistan without any money, and with no knowledge of where his wife and children were (they had gone into hiding before he was told he had to escape), the remainder of his story was equally compelling. His first wife came from Germany to look for him, being told he had been escorted across the border, and found him in Peshawar. With her, he found his second wife and his children in a refugee tent camp, and was able to take them to Germany. Not able to find work in Germany, he contacted his old American girl friend and her husband, living now in Texas, and they were able to sponsor the family’s move to the United States.
Quite a story. But when we left it in 1989, no one knew what was going to happen to Afghanistan. The Afghan Mujahedin movement had strengthened to the point that the Soviets knew that they could not remain in the country – the strain and the expense and the loss of life was too much to bear, particularly under the regime of reformist Mikhail Gorbachev. But the last two paragraphs of the book are perhaps the most poignant.
“One last point. As the possibility of a free Afghanistan approaches, the western press has reported a host of gloomy predictions: there will be a bloodbath as the Mujahedin take control, indiscriminately killing all those accused of being communist collaborators; the Mujahedin factions, released from the unifying effect of a common enemy, will become embroiled in an unending quarrel over power; Islamic fundamentalists will turn the country into another Iran, restricting individual freedom in the name of religion, persecuting moderates, denying rights to women, and turning the country back to the dark ages.
“I don’t think any of these extremes will come to pass. I know my countrymen well and they are reasonable people for the most part……..”
Clearly, Fazel was a better memoirist than prophet or social observer.
From watching the shadows cover Afghanistan, I went to Friling’s book “A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz”. For those of you not familiar with the term, a Kapo was a concentration camp prisoner chosen to be a “block chief” at a concentration camp barracks, whose main job was to keep the other prisoners in line. Following World War II, many who served as Kapos were sought out and, when located, tried, imprisoned and/or executed as Nazi collaborators.
Among the many problems this created is that it was usually impossible to know whether in fact (a) someone was a Kapo, and (b) whether they actually were collaborating with the Nazis (a problem which disappears if you conclude that any Kapo, by virtue of the position, was a collaborator, irrespective of how he fulfilled the job). The book is about one such individual, Eliezer Gruenbaum, who was rounded up by the Nazis in Paris in 1941 and spent virtually the entire remainder of the war years in Auschwitz, where he quickly became a block chief.
But this is no run of the mill Kapo story. This is an extraordinary story that is both thought provoking and fascinating, for Gruenbaum was no ordinary prisoner. First, he was the son of Yitzhak Gruenbaum, one of the highest ranking Zionist leaders in Warsaw during the inter-war years. But while he was Yitzhak Gruenbaum’s son, he was not a Zionist. In fact, he was a communist, a believer in the equality and brotherhood of all men, and against all forms of nationalism, certainly including Zionism. He had left Warsaw, gone to Spain to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and was living in Paris where he was active in Communist Circles.
So how did he act in Auschwitz? It is impossible to tell, as most of those with whom he was in contact failed to survive the war. There were a few survivors who have personal memories of him, but most who testified at the two trials of Eliezer were testifying on the basis of hearsay – “a friend who had a friend who had a friend told me that…….” The first trial was a non-official internal trial conducted by the Communists in Paris. They were mainly concerned about adherence to communist principals, and on this they determined that Eliezer failed (mainly based on testimony of other communist prisoners in the camps, and their establishment of underground sabotage operations which they claim Eliezer, the block chief, failed to support sufficiently). He was expelled from the Communist Party.
Then came an official French trial, where he was being accused of war crimes and collaboration and where a very large number of witnesses testified (some pro, most against) and where Eliezer himself gave very credible sounding testimony: paraphrasing – “Yes, I did beat prisoners – but it was only when they refused to behave and put the entire block of danger of immediate death” or “Yes, I did refuse to let sick prisoners go to sick bay and forced them to work, because I knew that there was no sick bay, and that they would be immediately marched to the gas chambers”, and “My block actually had more survivors than other blocks and there were times when I was beaten because the guards thought I was not being tough enough”. How did this trial turn out? It didn’t. It was dismissed on a technicality since Gruenbaum was not a French citizens and none of the crimes of which he was being accused occurred on French soil. Lack of jurisdiction.
But it was enough for the French government to revoke Eliezer’s residence permit. He wanted then to go home to Poland, but – even though he was in theory a Polish citizen – he learned he would not be permitted to enter the now-Communist country because he had been kicked out of the Communist Party by the French communists. Truly a man without a country.
Luckily, his father (and old antagonist) had moved to Palestine in the late 1930s, and was able to pull some strings and get his son into Palestine in 1946, where Eliezer began to build a sort of life and even found a girl friend, also a camp survivor. In 1948, after Israel declared independence and its Arab neighbors all attacked, he wanted to join the young Israel Defense Force, only to find himself rejected because of the accusation that he was a collaborator. Again, his father came to the rescue, contacting David Ben-Gurion personally, who issued an order that the younger Gruenbaum be permitted to join the IDF. Later that year, battling Egyptian troops, Eliezer was killed in action. The day after his death was reported to his family, his girl friend committed suicide.
So, this is the story? What is so fascinating about it? The reactions of the various groups involved. The communists disowned him, not caring whether or not he was brutal apparently, but on assumed ideological grounds. The Zionists (in Europe and in Palestine/Israel) rejected him because he was not a Zionist. The religious parties, from moderates to fundamentalists, rejected him because he was not religious. Secular Israelis rejected him because he was a presumed collaborator. All countries outside of Israel rejected him, each for their own reasons. And not only did he come under fire, but his poor father, who fought and fought to get positive testimony at his trials, to get his son permanent papers to reside in Europe (at his son’s request), who got him into Palestine and into the military, all at great loss to his own career and reputation – his own father came under continual attack. “Yes, he’s your son, but he’s a Nazi collaborator and you still support him.” “If you raised him better, he never would have collaborated as he did – you are as much a criminal as he is.” And so on.
Eliezer Gruenwald said that he never wanted to become a block chief. But he was a natural leader with connections both to the communist and the Zionist world and his blockmates nominated him for the task – a task he decided not to refuse. Was he brutal? Too brutal? Just brutal enough to save his own skin? Was he involved in determining who would live and who would die? Did he extend the life of those under his watch? Would things have been worse without him? What should he have done in that situation?
After the war, and after things settled down a bit, the mood in Israel was to track down collaborators and deal with them. Special legislation was passed by the Knesset, setting the death penalty (otherwise unknown in the country) for collaborators. And who were these collaborators? Largely, members of two groups. First, Kapos like Eliezer Gruenbaum. Second, those who had been members of the Judenrate, the governing boards set up in the ghettos by the Nazis, again to keep the Jews in line and to help with the deportation selection process. Everyone in either of these positions was obviously in a no-win situation. What should they have done? The head of the Warsaw ghetto committed suicide rather than help in the selection process. The head of the Lodz ghetto worked with the Nazis to select out those unable to work on his theory that the workers were too important for the Nazis ever to kill and that they would most likely survive the war. Was the first a hero, and the second a collaborator? The same dichotomy can possibly be applied to concentration camp Kapos – except that the evidence one way or another was typically impossible to come by.
A traumatized people, dealing with a unique situation. What would you have done, either as a Kapo, or as a survivor? Friling’s book poses the questions as fully as anything else I have read.
So, let’s go back to 109 year old Mr. Kahn – DNA, living right and luck. And how lucky we are.