Tuesday, April 17, 2012

HARD DAYLIGHT

by Leslie Fish


This is a true story.

Most of my father’s relatives lived in New Jersey, but his oldest surviving brother (after World War Two) was my uncle Paul, who ran a pipe factory (“Dr. Grabow Pre-Smoked Pipes”) in North Carolina. Uncle Paul would come visit us about twice a year, and he always brought toys for me, so I was always happy to see him.

One year, when I was 9, Uncle Paul came to visit. I played happily with the toy horses he brought me, greatly enjoyed family dinner, and then went upstairs to bed while Uncle Paul went off to talk to Dad in the den. Fairly late at night, not yet sleepy and hoping to see Uncle Paul again, I sneaked down the upstairs hallway to the bend of the stairs, where I could see and hear into the den without being noticed.

There I overheard my Uncle Paul talking quietly with Dad about something that he’d seen years ago, during the war, when he was a tank-corps commander.

Now this was during Patton’s mad dash across Europe, when the Allied troops ran clean off the maps and had to stop at each town for directions. Uncle Paul’s tank corps came down a road outside of a sizable town, and came across what the locals had told them was a “prison camp”. Uncle Paul and his troops were hoping to find and free some POWs. As fortune had it, they also brought along with them a bunch of photographers from the US Army Signal Corps.

Well, it wasn’t a common prison camp. It was a concentration camp. Uncle Paul mentioned the name only once, and I didn’t remember it, but after doing some research years later I suspect that the camp was either Ohrdruf or Nazweiler-Struthof.

In any case, the Allied advance had been so fast that the first warning the concentration camp guards had was when they saw the tank corps come rolling down the road toward them. They barely had time to run and alert the camp commandant. The commandant had time only to shoot himself, not even to burn his records. The Allied troops marched in, unopposed, to an undisguised concentration camp in the middle of a typical working day, with all the records – and witnesses – intact.

The first thing Uncle Paul and his troops saw was the cluster of fat, obsequiously smiling Nazis, in their crisp, pressed uniforms, surrendering without a fight at the gate, expecting to be treated like proper Aryans. The next thing they saw were the 20,000 starved-skeletal corpses littering the ground and filling the storage sheds. The third thing they saw was the crowd of still-living skeletons, lying three-to-a-board in the barracks. After that they found boxes of human teeth, bales of human hair, rolls of tanned skin, ovens full of ashes -- and all the meticulous records, intact and complete. Among those records, Uncle Paul found names of some of his distant cousins who’d stayed behind in Europe when Grandpa came to America.

The first order of business was to get food, medicine, clothing and blankets for the victims. That involved grounding the troops where they were, sending for supplies, and – where necessary – doing some commandeering from the local town. The town elders, of course, were appalled to learn the facts about the camp, and gave no trouble about providing the necessary supplies. Resettling the victims was more of a problem, and the army called in the Red Cross – which took a good while dealing with them. Army Intelligence, to whom he gave the records, acted much faster.

That left the problem of all those starved corpses littering the yard. Uncle Paul commandeered the loan of a bulldozer, and a driver, and had him dig several mass graves. Then he rounded up the guards and made them pick up all those corpses and carry them to the grave-sites, and throw them in. To encourage them, he told the guards that they wouldn’t get to eat until they’d finished their task – which, the troops unanimously agreed, was only fitting. By the time the guards had finished toting and hauling all those bodies, their uniforms were no longer so clean and crisp and pressed, and the guards were no longer so smug and smiling.

But right from the beginning, there was the question of what to do with the appalling evidence of the slaughter.

What Uncle Paul decided to do was to document everything. Those Signal Corps photographers were squeamish and didn’t want to photograph what they saw, but Uncle Paul chewed their asses until they took pictures of every last horror. A lot of the classic pictures of the concentration camps were taken because my Uncle Paul damn-well ordered them. He also sent off a personal report to General Eisenhower himself, detailing what he’d found. I know from historical sources that Eisenhower later visited Ohrdruf, and then gave his famous order: to photograph and record everything found at the concentration camps – because, he said, no doubt at some time in the future “some son of a bitch will try to say it never happened”. Prophetic man.

Needless to add, after Uncle Paul had finished his story – and Dad offered to refill his drink – I tiptoed back to my own room, leaving no evidence that I’d been out of it after bedtime. I lay awake for a long time in the dark, thinking over what I’d heard, and soon after that I took up a lasting interest in history.

Not many years later, a professional bigot tried to claim that the Holocaust never happened. Being also a fool, he never considered that there might still be survivors of the concentration camps who could take him to court and were willing to serve as witnesses. Yes, some of those photos taken at my Uncle Paul’s insistence showed up at the trial. The judge’s decision made it official; according to American law, yes, the Holocaust really did happen, no matter who tries to deny it.

That’s my connection to history.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Stand" vs. "Stalk": the Martin/Zimmerman Case and Political Hay

These facts are known beyond dispute. George Zimmerman -- actually a Hispanic -- was a nasty little racist cop-wannabe who couldn't qualify for the Sanford, Florida police department, so he joined the local unofficial Neighborhood Watch. Purely on his own hook, he went out to patrol one night, and spotted a Black teenager -- Trayvon Martin -- walking home, carrying a bag that held some iced tea and candy.

Zimmerman decided that the boy was "suspicious" because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly. He duly reported the sighting, using some racial insults, to the Sanford police. The police told him not to pursue, promising to send a patrol car around. Zimmerman ignored the police order, and followed Martin.

Martin received a phonecall from his girlfriend at 7:12 PM, and told her he was concerned about a strange "White" man following him. His girlfriend told him to run. A moment later she heard Martin saying: "What are you following me for?" followed by a man's voice saying: "What are you doing here?". After that came a sound of pushing or impact, and then Martin's phone went dead. She tried to call Martin back, but got no answer.

Eyewitness accounts of what happened next are contradictory: the two men were seen wrestling on the ground, no there was no wrestling, Zimmerman yelled for help, no it was a "very young voice" crying for help. One witness, who claimed he saw the two fighting on a grassy lawn, phoned the police. The call, which the police recorded, contains the sound of a single gunshot and then what is clearly identified as Martin's voice screaming for help.

When the police arrived, they found Martin lying face-down on the grass, dead. Zimmerman was standing nearby, still holding his gun, and the police reported that his back was wet and covered with bits of grass. They also claimed that he was bleeding from the nose and the back of the head. Zimmerman claimed to them that Martin had attacked him, punched him in the face and pounded his head on the ground several times, and he'd fired in self-defense. The police had an EMT examine him, then cuffed him, put him in a police car and drove him to the police station.

Police security videos show Zimmerman walking into the police station with no stumbling or staggering, no blood on his face, and only a single small wound on the back of his head. The police confiscated Zimmerman's gun -- of course -- but didn't administer any drug or alcohol tests nor give him any physical examination. The chief detective wanted to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter, but the state Attorney General said there wasn't enough evidence for a conviction -- even though very little investigation had been done. After questioning him, the Sanford police let Zimmerman go without charges.

Within days, the media got hold of the story and the political grandstanding began. Professional Black political activists howled that the whole incident was a case of blatant White Racism, despite the fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic, and the Black Panthers put a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman's head. Right-wing pundits insisted that Zimmerman was justified in shooting because Martin stood a few inches taller than he did, even though Martin weighed all of 140 pounds and was distinctly skinny. Left-wing politicos attacked Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which states that someone threatened with violence in public is not required to "retreat" -- neatly overlooking the fact that "Stand Your Ground" does not mean "Stalk and Confront".

What nobody seems to have considered is that the Sanford police were simply sloppy, incompetent, and -- along with the states Attorney General -- overly swayed by the fact that one of Zimmerman's relatives is a retired judge. In the absence of Left/Right and racial politics, that would have been scandal enough.

Ah, but this is an election year, isn't it?

--Leslie <;)))>< Fish