Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What Would You Do?

At the end of what is one of Maya’s favorite books, The Cat in the Hat, after the Cat and Thing One and Thing Two have cleaned up the house, the young boy narrator asks the reader if he and his sister Sally should tell their mother about the wild happenings that occurred while she left her two children home alone.

“What would you do?” he asks.

For some strange reason, I was thinking about the moral dilemma elucidated by Dr. Seuss as I watched a news report last night of the trial of suspected former Nazi guard and former US resident, John Demjanjuk, in Germany on charges that he helped kill nearly 28,000 Jews in a Nazi death camp more than 60 years ago.

Guards wheeled in Demjanjuk, seemingly a prisoner in his wheelchair, wrapped in a light blue medical blanket, an almost silent scream of pain pasted across his face. I have been aware of his case for many years, which emerged as Demjanjuk was living a relatively quiet life as a retired autoworker in Cleveland, OH, after eyewitnesses—Holocaust survivors—swore he was really Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard from the Treblinka death camp.

Demjanjuk is now 89 and may be in failing health. He may also be a war criminal. But as the TV report unfolded, I thought to myself, “What should we do?” Do we still punish Demjanjuk, who has already been deported from the US and could serve 15 years in prison if he is convicted?

I don’t know the answer. I certainly don’t want to trivialize or marginalize or dismiss the past, but I do wonder if Demjanjuk has already suffered enough? Of course, one could argue that there is never enough suffering for anyone so complicit in the Holocaust. And I agree.

But the man is almost 90, may be in deteriorating health, and probably only has a few years left to live. What do we accomplish by consigning him to prison at this point? On the other hand, there is the issue of justice for the dead and the survivors.

As the question what should we do reverberated through my mind, I thought about memory and remembrance and the past. The news report on Demjanjuk showed an elderly Holocaust survivor in court with his shirt sleeve rolled up and his clearly visible ID number tattooed onto his forearm. I wondered if he was excited about the prospect of Demjanjuk being convicted or did he feel a sense of weary calm as justice was meted out so many years later?

But I also thought how can any of us know, so many years later, if the alleged criminals are the right ones? Yes, someone has to pay, but was Demjanjuk a murderer or merely, as his lawyers unsurprisingly allege, a victim of circumstances and a former prisoner himself?

I thought of the movie The Music Box, which starred Jessica Lange, about an attorney who defends her kindly Eastern European father against charges that he was a horrific killer during WWII who participated in the mass murder of Jews along the riverbank.

During the trial of the Lange’s character’s father, the testimony of Holocaust survivors was challenged, and some of it was dismissed as failed memory. In the end, though, the father was guilty and Lange helped to denounce him the Justice Department.

The Demjanjuk case has not been resolved as neatly as a Hollywood-fabricated movie. It has been stewing for 30 years. I have no affection or allegiance or even understanding for Demjanjuk. And much of this blog is really an attempt to verbalize the internal roiling I am feeling about a particular moral dilemma.

Maybe the dead and the survivors, among whom I can count distant relatives I never knew, deserve the final nod. No matter what we think or anguish over, maybe our responsibility must be to those who seek justice and those who are no longer alive to pursue their killers.

According to the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Services (1990), “Without confronting the fear and recapturing the fragments of memory, the survivor cannot make the necessary connections which allow reintegration of their whole life; neither can they obtain the peace of mind that comes with closure.”

Is Demjanjuk the monster of one savage death camp or the victim of mistaken identity? Is he the sacrificial lamb that will allow some to achieve a measure of closure and “reintegration of their whole life”, the person who may be quite culpable that pays for crimes against humanity?

What should we do? A zany cat may not always provide the necessary answers or resolution.

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