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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Neighborly Monsters" (on Eric Lichtblau's The Nazis Next Door)

neighborly monsters

Eric Lichtblau The Nazi Next Door: How American Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

As I mention at the end of my essay on Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie and Willie above, my father fought in World War II as a bomber, proudly feeling afterwards that he had battled to save the Jews—even if, if fact, by the time he bombed Frankfurt most of the German Jews had been sent away to camps or forced to attempt escape into other countries. Indeed my father remained committed to that belief throughout his life, never permitting my German-born, uneducated farmer grandfather, my mother’s father, to speak his anti-Semitic observations; every time we visited the basically kindly man, when he said something about “the Jews,” my parents booth quickly stood and hurried my brother, sister, and I off to the car for the return home. Since we visited my grandfather, Tobe Caspers, regularly at Easter, I believe these painful experiences made that holiday my least favorite of the year.
      Despite father’s and mother’s strong-minded commitments—of which I am proud and which, I am sure helped to make me such a fervent spokesman against anti-Semitic sentiments and behavior—my father was basically a naïve man, a true innocent in many respects, even though as an educator he was seen as a community leader. Like so many others of the period, he believed in what the government and newspapers espousing government viewpoints said without question.

     When I was in Junior High School, for example, he strongly encouraged me write an essay on that year’s declared topic, “Space, Man’s New Frontier,” and helped me, if I remember correctly, on the research, making certain that the properly I expressed praise for the “great” space architect, Dr. Werner von Braun, who, having worked on the German rockets V-2 in World War II, had helped the U.S. create the Saturn-V. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Allen Dulles, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency had, after all, been instrumental in bringing van Braun and several other German scientists, through Operation Paperclip, to the US after the War, and continued to award and praise these individuals for decades after for their service to the Cold War battles with Russia.

     My father never suspected, I am certain, the truth: that Braun had had knowledge of and was likely personally involved in activities in Mittelbau-Dora, the German base and concentration camp where Polish, Russian, and some French slave laborers were forced to create the rockets, while being fed little and killed on a regular basis, only to be replaced with others. Many where hung in the tunnels of the rocket camp itself, particularly if they were seen as slacking off or challenging their torturous tasks.
     I won that Junior High School speech contest, and am now quite embarrassed by my own innocent praise of the former Nazi’s contributions. As writer Eric Lichtblau makes clear in his new study, The Nazis Next Door, more than 10,000 Nazi’s—many of them brutal murderers during the War—were permitted and in many cases even encouraged by the CIA, FBI, and other government agencies to seek asylum after the War in the US. By the time enough people began to realize these facts, von Braun had died; while underlings in the Huntsville, Alabama space program such as Arthur Rudolph, who was admittedly (and implacably) involved in the hellish concentration camp activities, and the so-called “father of space medicine,” Dr. Hubertus Strughold, who had medically experimented on prisoners at Dachau, were finally   brought to trial. Rudolph remained un-repentant, even trying to slip back into the US through Canada, and Strughold died before he could be deported.

      Indeed, there have now been several books of this sad series of episodes in American history, including Richard Rashke’s 2013 book Useful Enemies and Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip. But what Pulitzer-Prize winning author Lichtblau reveals is just how determined the spying agencies (with figures like Dulles, Bush, and, obviously J. Edgar Hoover) and, under President Reagan, even the office the President itself, through opinions voiced by Pat Buchanan and others like him, were to help and avoid any prosecution of the Nazi monsters in our midst.

       By this time, whistler-blowers such as the outspoken left-wing journalist, Chuck Allen, Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, and Howard Blum, whose work Wanted!: The Search for Nazis in America was perhaps the most nuanced study of former Nazis in the USA of its day, had gained enough attention to even occasion a PBS television segment, hosted by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, on the former CIA spy and then Passaic County chief purchasing officer, Tom Soobzokov. Soobzokov, one of the most contentious of the ex-Nazis continued throughout his life to insist upon his innocence, often suing and threatening those who dared to suggest that he was a second lieutenant in the Waffen SS, often described as “the second Eichmann,” who helped in the execution of several hundred Russians during the War. With help from his former CIA connections and his own supportive immigrant community, Soobzokov was found not-guilty by a technicality: he had made known his past to the CIA and other organizations and they had still hired him and helped to gain citizenship. Later, Allen was arrested for and briefly imprisoned for even writing about Soobzokov, while the Nazi he had exposed remained free.
      Soobzokov continued to live in William Carlos Williams’ hometown of Patterson, New Jersey until a radical Nazi hunter (perhaps related to the Jewish Defense League) exploded a bomb on his front porch. That event, in itself, caused further calls to halt what by that time had finally become an organized government response, headed by Eli Rosenbaum and Tony DeVito, of the Justice Department in hunting down the remaining Nazis.  
     While the organization was able to force the deportation of people such as Rudolph, they also met with continued resistance by other governmental agencies which refused to release records and actually worked with the accused in staging cover-ups. The Justice Department, however, did themselves the most harm by falsely accusing John Demjanjuk, a retired Ohio auto worker of being the brutal Treblink guard, Ivan the Terrible. Demjanjuk, it was later discovered was, in fact, a much lesser guard at another camp, Sobibor, and died in a nursing home still protesting his innocence.

      Several Alabama scientists, still outraged over the trials of Rudolph and Stughold, banded together in anger over the Justice Department division; immigrant communities stood in firm opposition to the agency’s attacks on elderly men whom they perceived as important community members; many of those who testified against the ex-Nazis were growing so old that they memories were waning; and CIA, FBI, and other offices remained strapped in the Cold War ethics, convinced that in order to defeat the Russians, it was important to make pacts, as Dulles had argued, even with the devil. None of these individuals, agencies, and communities seemed to be able reflect upon the issue of their own morality in supporting Nazis such as Soobzokov, Rudolph, Klaus Barbie, Otto von Bolschwing (a close ally of Eichmann) or Nazi General Karl Wolff (a close associate of Himmler), while permitting to achieve success and, quite often, financial security in the U.S., after having helped to murder millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, gays, and other peoples in Europe. 
      As Litchblau ponders, early in his book how could it happen that as the Nazis fled, their victims were often “left to languish,” that although thousands of the worst criminals in history were able to obtain American citizenship, as many homeless and tortured Jews were barred from our borders? The elephant in the room, quite obviously, is the fact that many of our leaders were perfectly willing to sleep with the enemy, and were likely as equally anti-Semitic as the Germans the Allies had just defeated. It is so terribly painful as an American to recall, as Lichtblau does early in this book, that Bess Truman, wife of President Truman, “did not welcome Jews in her home, and that the President himself privately referred to Jews and “Kikes” and “Jew Boys,” that the lionized General George S. Patton, as he and his men were discovering in the Nazi death camps, held “Jews in utter contempt.” Writing Truman, Old Blood and Guts,” laid bare his rabid anti-Semitism, complaining of how the “the Jews in one DP camp, with “no sense of human relationships,” “would defecate on the floors and live in filth like lazy ‘locusts."

                  We entered the synagogue (on Yom Kippur) which was packed with
                  the greatest sticking mass of humanity I have ever seen.”

As late as 1987, Pat Buchanan, Ed Meese and other government officials were attempting to countermand another American Nazi, Karl Linnas,’ deportation to Russia by sneaking him—without even discussing it with the Justice Department prosecutor Neal Sher—to Panama, where Sher might imagine Linnas “relaxing under the palm trees on the beaches…living out his days as some sort of bon vivant in exile.” The end-run deportation was thwarted by Shear and Holtzman who, visiting the Panamanian embassy, quickly detailed the ex-Nazi’s criminal background.

     Rounding up the Nazis was clearly a near impossible task in a country where they had been so readily welcomed.

     My father, had ever read of these facts, could never have believed them. What had his actions of War-time service meant if they had had so little effect? Fortunately brave journalists such as Litchblau, and Richard Rashke, Annie Jacobsen, Howard Blum, and Chuck Allen before him continue to speak the truth so that we might finally comprehend our complicity.
      Just a few weeks before I wrote this review (May 31, 2015), Lichtblau reported in The New York Times that “The American government paid $20.2 million in Social Security benefits to more than 130 United States residents linked to Nazi atrocities over the course of more than a half-century, with some of the payments made as recently as this year….” Finally, it appears, such payments have stopped and most of the Nazis have passed away. But we must make a pact with one another to never forget.

Los Angeles, June 17, 2015

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