Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, the author’s mother, after the war in Austria. She was in a Displaced People camp.
Every night as we watched the news on television my mother would avert her eyes and raise her hand to block the screen when scenes from Vietnam flashed across it. After a few moments the question would invariably come: “Is it over yet?” Not at all given to self-dramatization, she simply couldn’t endure the scenes of destruction and death. Whereas most of my friends and their parents eventually came to be against the Vietnam War, the moral urgency of opposition sounded at a different decibel in my home. The war wasn’t a subject of intellectual or political argument, even vehement argument. My mother’s whole being revolted against it. I wouldn’t say she was emotional about the war; she was hysterical. Although knowledgeable about the facts, she detested any intellectualizing of it. Even to engage in debate about Vietnam constituted a moral travesty. It manifested a lack of genuine outrage at, and comprehension of, the unfolding horror: no one who had actually experienced war could or would calmly discuss it. For related reasons she disdained my joining the high school forensics team. The art of debate was to argue with equal passion and skill both sides of a given question. To her mind, it nurtured duplicity, the amoral manipulation of words.
My mother would often exclaim that the United States was “worse than Hitler.” Admittedly, in my home many things were alleged to be “worse than Hitler,” including on occasion my siblings and me, or “worse than Auschwitz,” including my mother’s cooking. I’m not sure whether my mother meant literally the comparison between the U.S. and Hitler or she was simply straining to convey the magnitude of the Vietnam War’s criminality. Having internalized my mother’s indignation I became nearly insufferable whenever the subject of Vietnam would come up. After forcing my high school economics class to listen to passages from a book graphically depicting U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, I remember my shock and disgust that nobody else was physically wrenched. To this day I still cringe at the memory of publicly breaking down at a college teach-in on the war. In retrospect I regret my holier-than-thou posture but, if it’s any mitigation, the war did profoundly affect me. I couldn’t comprehend how people compartmentalized the carnage and went on with business as usual: at this very moment, I thought, Vietnamese are being murdered. It was only many years later after reading Noam Chomsky that I learned it was possible to unite exacting scholarly rigor with scathing moral outrage; that an intelligent argument didn’t have to be an intellectualizing one.
It was no mystery from whence my mother’s impassioned response sprang. The devastating firepower of the Americans, on the one hand, and the utter defenselessness of the Vietnamese, on the other; the indifference or, at any rate, scandalously incommensurate response, of the rest of humanity to the ongoing genocide: it was the Nazi holocaust all over again. And such was her exceptional humanity that my mother literally couldn’t bear for anyone to suffer as she had. Neither of my parents ever let go of “the war.” They couldn’t, and were it even possible, wouldn’t have wanted to. Never to forget, Never to forgive — this was how they lived, and died. It wasn’t just bitterness over what had befallen them, although there was plenty of that; not forgetting or forgiving was the minimum they owed to those who had perished. I once had dinner with two Unitarian friends, both married to German-born women who had been in the Hitler Youth. The subject eventually came around to the Nazi holocaust, and one of the wives whined, “How much longer must we keep hearing about it?” “My parents lived with the Nazi holocaust until the last day of their lives,” I coldly thought, “so you can live with it until the last day of yours.”
Whereas my mother never stopped talking about the war, my father never uttered a single word about it. I once asked my mother why. Without a trace of condescension — for all her sense of superiority to my father, she never belittled the suffering he had endured — my mother replied that he had never really understood what had happened to him. Much later in life I came across a passage in Primo Levi contrasting two kinds of survivors: those who experienced the Nazi holocaust as a traumatic but nonetheless meaningless blow, and those able to make out, beyond the sheer horror and brutality, its darker truths. My mother’s mind was sufficiently capacious that she could mentally encompass the Nazi holocaust; and, certain of the profundity of what she had experienced, my mother never ceased trying to penetrate its meaning. If her answers weren’t always right, she also never lapsed into the clichés of the Holocaust industry. It might be wondered why I didn’t just question my father about his own experience. The simple answer is I was terrified at opening the floodgates. Once I became privy to the horrors he’d personally endured, I would relinquish the right ever again to be angry at him, which I’d often been: in the face of this knowledge, guilt over being angry would always get the better of the anger itself.
Neither of my parents ever spoke of their respective families’ fate. My mother drew an inviolable circle around hers. If questioned, her voice cracked, her breath quickened, her eyes moistened, she turned or lowered her head. She once muttered that her brother had been grabbed off the street and sent to Treblinka. I’ve no idea what happened to her parents and two sisters. One day while ironing, my mother suddenly revealed (I was maybe 15) that my father was not her first husband. When her family was about to descend into the ghetto bunker, she was with her boyfriend. Her father, who was ultra-orthodox, insisted that they first marry. My mother never recovered from the loss of her family. Shortly before my mother’s death Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked her about liberation. “It must have been the happiest day of your life.” “Happiest? It was the most horrible day of my life.” “Why horrible?” “Because it struck me for the first time that everyone was dead and I was all alone in the world.” My mother used to say that she survived the war by blocking it out. An aunt of hers who had immigrated to the United States before the war preserved a few pictures of my mother’s parents and siblings. Hanging on the living room wall during my childhood, they served as the one eerie memento of my family. I didn’t, however, relate to them as my grandparents, aunts and uncle but rather as “my mother’s father and mother” and “my mother’s sisters and brother.” In later years the pictures collected dust in the closet but near the end of her life my mother hung them up again on the foyer wall. The photographs caressed her in the warm glow of her dearly beloved family as she faced death and perhaps offered solace that, if she wasn’t going to join them, at any rate she would join their fate. No pictures of my father’s family survived the war. While in Maijdanek, my mother once glimpsed from afar my father’s sister, who she remembered as a “great beauty.” Every so often during their marriage my father, standing stiff and forlorn, would yet again ask my mother to describe exactly how his sister looked at that moment.
Except for alluding to relentless pangs of hunger, my mother never spoke about her personal torments during the war, which was just as well, since I couldn’t have borne them. Like Primo Levi, she often said that, being “too delicate and refined, the best didn’t survive.” Was this an indirect admission of guilt? Much later in life I finally summoned the nerve to ask whether she had done anything of which she was ashamed. Calmly replying no, she recalled having refused the privileged position of “block head” in the camp. She especially resented the “dirty” question “How did you survive?” with the insinuation that, to emerge alive from the camps, survivors must have morally compromised themselves. Given how ferociously she cursed the Jewish councils, ghetto police and kapos, I assume my mother answered me truthfully. Although acknowledging that Jews initially joined the councils from mixed motives, she said that only “scum,” reaping the rewards of doing the devil’s work, still cooperated after it became clear that they were merely cogs in the Nazi killing machine. When queried why she hadn’t settled in Israel after the war, my mother used to reply, only half in jest, that “I had enough of Jewish leaders.” The Jewish ghetto police always had the option, she said, of “throwing off their uniforms and joining the rest of us” — a point that Yitzak Zuckerman, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, made in his memoir. (It was always gratifying to find my mother’s seemingly erratic or harsh judgments seconded in the reliable testimonial literature.) Still shaking her head in disbelief, she would often recall how, after Jews in the ghetto used the most primitive implements or even bare hands to dig bunkers deep in the earth and conceal themselves, the Jewish police would reveal these hideouts to the Germans, sending their flesh-and-blood to the crematoria in order to save their own skins. One of the first acts of the ghetto resistance was to kill an officer in the Jewish police. On a sign posted next to his corpse – my mother would recall with vengeful glee — read the epitaph: “Those who live like a dog die like a dog.” Still, if she didn’t cross fundamental moral boundaries, I glimpsed from her manner of pushing and shoving in order to get to the head of a queue, which mortified me, how my mother must have fought Hobbes’s war of all against all many a time in the camps. Really, how else would she have survived?
Exaggerated as it might sound, almost every conversation I had with my mother eventually did come back to the war. It’s not as if she systematically lectured me. On the contrary, except during the rare interview or public presentation I don’t recall any sustained reflections by her on the Nazi holocaust. Rather, incidents from the war served as parables to illustrate this or that point in our conversations. When I was struggling to excel in school, she told me the story of an inmate at Maijdanek who had swapped cleaning assignments with other inmates in exchange for a supplement to her bread ration. She mopped the floor for this inmate, wiped the toilet for another. While getting the extra crumbs, she had meanwhile also turned black and worn — and was selected for the gas chambers. “So don’t push yourself so hard,” my mother admonished. My best friend, Mark Cohn, although a brilliant mind, was a lackadaisical student. While I pored over my homework assignments in the bedroom, he would sit in the kitchen chatting with my mother. “Why can’t you be more like Mark,” she used to complain, “and not do your homework?”
When our neighbors reacted in horror to rumors that the city was putting up a homeless shelter nearby, my mother retorted: “You never know where you will be tomorrow.” I knew exactly what she was thinking: one day hers was the carefree cultured life of Warsaw’s middle class, ice-skating after school and attending a concert of classical music in the evening; the next day she was reduced to a state of stink and filth in the ghetto. To exemplify the love she bore for her father — but also to get my undivided support on those rare occasions when I dared hesitate — my mother would tell the story of how he arrived home one night, ashen-faced and clutching a piece of paper. She overheard him whisper in a trembling voice to her mother that he had been summoned to the Gestapo. Breaking into the conversation and although terrified herself, she firmly told him: “I’m going with you!”
Even the lyrics of contemporary pop songs were freighted with a unique — one might say morbid — poignancy in my home. While listening to “Let the Sun Shine” from the Broadway show Hair, my mother would remember how she walked through the gray bleakness of the ghetto, yearning for the sun, at least, to come out. “I Will Survive” was not the defiant refrain of a jilted lover, but rather my mother’s resolve to outlive Hitler, while “Those Were the Days” wasn’t a lament about the passage of time, but about that mirthful life before. Whenever “Yesterday” came on the radio, my mother, drifting off into herself, would emphatically sing along, “Oh, I believe in yesterday.” A close friend of hers from Warsaw once lamented how totally the war had shattered my mother: “She used to be always laughing and joking.”
Unsurprisingly, the war has become the primary point of reference not just in my political life but in the trivia of my daily life as well. The image having been planted in my mind of camp inmates lunging for a scrap of vegetable or meat in the soup cauldron, I always cut up a scallion right to the root’s edge and devour even the marrow in a steak or chicken bone. On one occasion the Nazi holocaust became, for me, too close to a living reality. In 1973 my mother served as the chief witness in an INS deportation hearing for a Maijdanek guard, Hermine Braunsteiner, who had married an American after the war and resettled in Queens, New York. In 1979 the German government requested that my mother testify at the Maijdanek trial in Dusseldorf. I accompanied her. The initial shock came when she discovered that the defendants not only weren’t manacled but moved about freely, unguarded, in the courthouse. They were even released on their own recognizance every evening after court proceedings were over. “Those animals,” my mother shrieked, “they’re not in cages?!”
Taking the witness stand to give testimony, my mother was called on by the judge to identify the defendants in the courtroom as the guards she knew in the camp. She couldn’t. It had been forbidden for inmates to make direct eye contact with the guards and, anyhow, the Germans sitting in front of her didn’t at all resemble them. My mother remembered the guards as slim, towering “Aryan” types in crisp uniforms. Many were now obese, and wearing drab pleated skirts and cheap, wrinkled blouses. “I can’t believe it,” my mother whispered to me the first day in court, “they’re washwomen.” The survivor-witness right before my mother also couldn’t identify them. Ordering the defendants to stand up, the judge told the witness to inspect them from up close. Approaching the former guards, she now claimed to recognize them from their feet. I cringed from shame at this obvious falsehood. Were the spectators in the courtroom thinking “another Jew-liar,” I wondered, and would they now infer that all the testimony was false too? In fact, the witnesses had been quietly coached ahead of time which defendant in the courtroom was the guard “Hermine,” which “Birgetta,” which “Perelka,” etc. I still can’t say whether identifying the defendants was just a legal formality, the Germans being sticklers about procedure, or whether it was a subtle plot to discredit survivors. When the judge asked my mother to identify the guards from up close, she refused, saying that, if she got any nearer, she would beat them. Exasperated, the judge then asked my mother to identify them from an album collecting contemporary photographs from Maijdanek of the guards. She again refused. “I won’t look at them alive in the camp. If you give me pictures of them dead, not only will I look at them, I’ll do a dance for the courtroom.” Although my mother might seem in retrospect a willfully uncooperative witness, I don’t fault her. Having dragged on for years, the Dusseldorf proceedings no longer carried moral weight. Scores of witnesses had already identified these beasts, and the defendants themselves seemed bored to tears. Personally, I supported the Soviet style of meting out justice after entering the camps at war’s end: Line them up, shoot them down.
One evening we attended a gathering in a Dusseldorf synagogue. Each of the survivor-witnesses was invited to say a few words. The former inmate who had testified just before my mother said coming to Germany was the happiest day in her life. Happiest? My mother and I looked at each other in consternation: Was she insane or just an idiot? Truly, the best hadn’t survived. As it happened, my mother knew this woman from the Warsaw ghetto. I expected that their seeing each other again would be an occasion replete with pathos, but they only exchanged a few cursory words and swiftly parted ways, never to meet again. The woman was nervous, my mother subsequently explained, because the ghetto resistance had targeted her in leaflets for death as a collaborator. She apparently guessed that my mother knew. After the synagogue we visited the home of several German Jews who remained in Germany after the war. One was named Karl Marx. He was a writer, and had just completed a book on the Nazi holocaust. My mother quietly withdrew to an adjacent bedroom to read it and came out a couple of hours later pronouncing the volume excellent. (She was being polite.) Somehow we got on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Marx said some pretty disgusting things. “The only thing Arabs ever invented was camel s***.” My mother and I looked at each other knowingly: He had obviously learned a lot from the Nazi holocaust.
The most notorious of the female guards at Maijdanek was Birgetta. Whip in hand, she used to stride into the main courtyard of the camp trailed by German shepherds. One evening after my mother had just given several consecutive hours of testimony, we were exiting the courthouse into the darkness when I noticed, but my mother didn’t, Birgetta casually walking almost shoulder-to-shoulder with me, my mother on the other side. My whole being started to quiver. I waited for Birgetta to get several hundred feet ahead, and then turned to my mother: “Do you know who that is?” “Birgetta?” my mother gasped. “Yes! Do you want me to get her?” “Get her! Get her!” my mother screamed hysterically. “They think we’re sheep! They think we’re sheep!” Although pathologically mindful of my physical safety, afterwards she never expressed regret about commanding me to exact retribution. In fact I’m certain she would have lost all respect for me if I silently abided this colossal, ineffable affront. Despising Martin Luther King’s turn-the other-cheek philosophy, my mother on the contrary admired Malcolm X for advocating that each blow be returned in kind. To teach them a lesson; to avenge the dead; to keep one’s honor.
Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics, Princeton University, for a thesis on the theory of Zionism. He currently teaches political theory at DePaul University in Chicago. Finkelstein is the author of five books: Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (University of California Press, August 2005); The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000; expanded second edition, 2003); Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995; expanded second edition, 2003); (with Ruth Bettina Birn) A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Henry Holt, 1998); and The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years (University of Minnesota: 1996). “Haunted House” is an excerpt from Finkelstein’s political memoir in progress, originally published at his Web site. Click here to download this essay as an MS Word document (Zip file, 13KB).