A case study of Paul Weiss.
Looking at Paul Weiss one would never suspect that only twelve years have passed since he came out of Buchenwald. He seems younger than his thirty years, and with his fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes set deeply beneath a broad, low forehead, his straight nose and slightly prognathous jaw, he is often taken for an Irishman—so long as he keeps quiet.
I have known Paul (this, incidentally, is not his real name) since he came to this country in 1949 and I believe I have become his friend, or as much of one as he will let an American be. But then I, being a Yecke, a Jew born and raised in Germany, don’t count in Paul’s eyes as a real American.
Part of Paul’s difficulty in making friends with Americans, Jewish or Gentile, lies in his struggle with the English language. For a man so eloquent in his native tongue, descending to the low intellectual level imposed upon him by a limited English vocabulary is galling indeed. Most of his friends are Polish Jews like himself and with them he speaks a Polish whose purity of accent and wealth of vocabulary are remarkable and rare. And his Yiddish, which he uses with me, spiked with frequent Russian and Polish curses, technical terms in German, and American slang, is no less rich and fluent. But Paul’s difficulties are not confined to the English language. Observing him over the years, I have been disturbed by his inability and, yes, his unwillingness to come to terms with America.
More than seven years have passed since Paul came to this country and he is still drifting from temporary job to temporary job, from one furnished room to another, while his only real friends are still those few of his fellow refugees who can be seen hanging around Senator’s Cafeteria on Broadway and 96th Street. He shows no sign of settling down; the mere mention of marriage makes him shudder.
As I have said, I met Paul when he first arrived in this country, and very soon he became a special problem to me. As the years slipped by for him, their waste somehow became a challenge for me: his difficulty in finding himself in America was a reproach to me, who had had such an easy time of it, his lostness was a threat to my new and tender roots. I brooded over these things for a long time, and there was even a period in my life when the only thing that mattered deeply to me was to understand Paul, to know all about him, to account for every minute of his past, indeed to reach a point where I could quite literally put myself in his place and make his memories my own. Even while this was happening I realized that Paul himself—much as I liked and esteemed him—was merely serving as a focus for those dark, unquiet feelings I carried with me for having been saved when those I loved most had died in the very camps Paul had been in.
Of course, Paul’s life did not furnish me with my catharsis—how could it? But those endless conversations we had, those interminable monologues of his, gradually yielded, if not the full understanding, then at least the intimation, the aura of a fate that might, but for exceptional good luck, have been my own.
Whenever I wanted to see Paul, I would go up to Senator’s Cafeteria, where I was sure to find him, in one of those small clusters of men who stand day and night in front of the place, or else sit inside or divert themselves in the poolroom above. After disengaging him from his friends, I would sit down with him to a piece of Danish and a cup of coffee, amid the familiar noises of the cafeteria—the voices of the customers ordering their meals, the clatter of the chefs at the range, the squeal of the busboys’ carts, the hum of conversation, and the steady knocking of heavy silverware on heavy crockery. From time to time Paul would wave to a passing friend, then he would settle back, bite into his Danish, and tell me about the night in Auschwitz when the Germans gassed five thousand Gypsies to make room for new inmates.
The beginnings of Paul’s life were completely unremarkable. He was born and raised in a middle-sized Polish town, the spoiled younger son of a Jewish shopkeeper. He has mentioned his father only once to me, saying that he had great handle-bar mustaches, but he often speaks of his mother and he has shown me photographs which portray her as a dignified matron with unusually piercing eyes. “A sheyne yidene,” Paul affectionately calls her. I have also seen snapshots of Paul himself, first at ten, in his new knickers, smiling as only a mother’s favorite does, and again at the age of fourteen, in a cape dramatically flung over his shoulder. At school he was known for his astounding memory, his ability as a storyteller, and his frequent absences. Among his friends he was admired for his precocious skill at billiards.
When he was fourteen the Germans came, at sixteen he was taken to a work camp, and from there to a succession of work and concentration camps until, early in 1945, he reached the notorious “Little Camp,” a sub-division of the huge Buchenwald camp. Naturally, there are no pictures of Paul at that time, yet from the movies taken when the camp was liberated in April 1945, we know exactly what Paul must have looked like. Who can ever forget those living skeletons propped up against the heaps of the dead?
There is a description by a French student, quoted in Reitlinger’s The Final Solution, of the arrival of a transport from Auschwitz at Buchenwald, possibly the very transport of which Paul was a part. The writer does not mention that the prisoners, many of whom had been driven halfway across Europe on foot or in open cattle cars, frequently had to lie for as many as three days and three nights in the open plain around the camp, struggling to keep awake in the snow and the bitter cold, until they were admitted. But he does tell us what their arrival in camp was like: “Sometimes under the pressure of blows they would suddenly break into movement like a herd of cattle, jostling each other. It was impossible to extract from their lips their names, much less the date of birth. Kindness itself had not the power to make them speak. They would only look at you with a long expressionless stare. If they tried to answer their tongues could not reach their dried up palate to make a sound. One was aware of a poisonous breath appearing to come from entrails already in a state of decomposition. That was what the transport was like in the winter 1944-45, that winter when death achieved the prodigious figure of 13,000 detainees in the last three months before our liberation.”
I once asked Paul how it felt to be in a concentration camp, but he did not understand quite what I meant. He has no impulse toward introspection: he has spent far too much time looking only at the man opposite on whose reaction his very life might depend to have cultivated any interest in his own responses to experience. Trying a different tack, I then asked Paul to reconstruct for me the routine of an average day in Buchenwald, trusting to his phenomenal memory to dredge up the details of a moment now more than eleven years gone. With the skill of a born raconteur he began by sketching in the background: the biting cold of that February 1945, the emaciated internees in their thin prison pajamas, the barbed wire and the watch towers surrounding the camp, the frozen mud and the physical desolation within. Finally he described the seventeen “temporary” wooden structures that comprised the Little Camp which was by then overflowing with prisoners who had been evacuated from the camps in Poland and Austria already overrun by the Russians.
These barracks, located directly off the Appell Platz, were a hell compared to which the regular concentration camp at Buchenwald seemed but a mild purgatory. The buildings, unheated and inadequately lit, were divided lengthwise into two equal parts by a low wall, about two feet high. On either side of this barrier there ran a narrow corridor, the only free space in the room. The rest of the cabin was jammed tight with three- and four-decker wooden bunks (the infamous “boxen”) on the bare boards of which the prisoners were packed, usually ten to twelve to each deck, so tight they all had to sleep on the same side without ever being able to turn over. “Still,” Paul told me, “we warmed each other that way, except when the man next to you died during the night, which happened quite often. And though we were all hardly more than skeletons, our cumulative weight became so great at times that the boxen would sink right through the floor.”
A typical day in Buchenwald began, according to Paul, at six in the morning with a blast of whistles over the loudspeaker system. A minute later the Stubendienst (orderlies in charge of the barracks; these soft jobs almost invariably went to German prisoners) began to drive the inmates off the bunks with shouts of “Aufstehen! Aufstehen!” This was no easy matter, a handful of men hustling two thousand exhausted creatures out of bed and into the bitter winter darkness and every morning there were a good many who could not, or would not, get off the bunks. Many were dead, many more were too weak to move, and still more pretended to be even weaker than they actually were for fear of what the day had in store. These “simulators” rarely had any luck because the Stubendienst were experts at distinguishing among the various degrees of exhaustion, and they forced everyone who could at all move to line up outside the barracks in columns of four. There the prisoners stood, dressed only in their gray-blue cotton pajamas, caps made of the same material, and wooden Dutch cloppers—the only clothing they possessed. At the command they began to move slowly, their shoes crunching the snow, to a barracks two hundred yards down the road. “We must have been quite a sight,” Paul recalls now. “Like a parade of walking skeletons. And how we must have stunk! In all those months we never changed or washed our clothes once. There was no soap. And anyhow, who cared?”
The destination of their morning march was the wash barracks, another wooden structure, which was unheated and completely empty except for two or three water pipes and a trough below them running down the center of the building. These pipes were perforated; ice cold water came spouting out of the holes and was drawn off into the trough. The prisoners lined up on both sides of the pipes, removed their pajama tops and washed themselves in the icy water. Neither soap nor towels were available and each man dried himself as best he could. Then the shivering men were marched back to the barracks for breakfast.
Now it may be significant that in the matter of breakfast Paul’s memory, usually capable of total recall, is more than a little hazy, and that at various times he has told me several different versions of how the meal was arranged. But after checking with his friends, he settled definitely on this one: from the wash barracks the prisoners were marched back into their own barracks, where they lay down on their bunks again. Then the Blockälteste (the official barracks boss—again, in most cases a German prisoner) came along and distributed the morning’s ration in a manner grimly reminiscent of feeding at the zoo.
There were groans and moaning and arguments as the well-fed and warmly dressed Blockälteste strode down the corridor through the offal, the filth, and the stench, thrusting the ration into the bunks, where it was grasped by desperate hands. The ration consisted of a quarter of a loaf of bread and a pat of margarine. The procedure for distributing the coffee was even more grotesque. A huge pot filled with a lukewarm, muddy liquid (burnt chickory, mostly) was wheeled or carried down the aisle. Since the prisoners were lying down twelve deep parallel to the wall and corridor, those next to the wall had to crawl—cup in one hand and bread clutched in the other—over the bodies of their fellows, stretch their cups over the edge of the bunk, get them filled, and crawl back again. A few, remembering that their portion of bread would have to tide them over until night, would hide it on their persons and just drink the coffee. The great majority, however, gobbled down their ration immediately, for the possession of bread, in however small a quantity, was an open invitation to thievery. The Russian prisoners of war, who were relative latecomers to the camps and therefore healthier than the rest, were particularly feared in this respect. They were known to work in gangs, and in the dim twilight of the barracks or out in the yard they stole the bread or took it by force.
Since the Little Camp was not a regular concentration camp, the prisoners were not assigned permanent jobs—at least not in the last months of the war—but were ordinarily left to their own devices for the rest of the day.
In bad weather they lay on their bunks or walked up and down the corridor in the barracks; when the sun shone and it was a little warmer, they wandered around the yard. Small groups of friends, people from the same town or province, relatives however distant, stood and walked together, talked and looked for friends among new arrivals. According to Paul, the Jewish prisoners seldom made friends with non-Jews and never trusted them entirely.
Paul himself had been officially passing for a non-Jew long before he got to Buchenwald; nonetheless he kept to the company of other Jews. He would not have survived without them. On the long trek from Auschwitz to Buchenwald there were many times when he wanted to lie down in the snow and die, but his friends would not let him. On other occasions during the march when he felt stronger, he in turn would encourage them to go on. In the camps, too, they helped each other as much as they could. “Wherever I went,” Paul says again and again, “whatever camp I was sent to, I found yiden and chaverim.”
This trust and dependence on fellow Jews has never left Paul; it is even reflected in the way he talks. For instance, whenever he mentions a Gentile he will say: yener Polack or yener Deitsh (“that Pole” or “that German”), rarely giving the person’s name, even when he knows it; but he always speaks of a Jew by name and always specifies exactly how he is related to him: “So-and-so, my father’s cousin’s oldest son,” or “So-and-so, an uncle of a classmate of mine,” or simply, “A kollege” (a buddy). It is also very important to Paul that he should be surrounded by trusted friends. Again and again he will mention people, Jews and occasionally a Gentile who saved his life, and say: “Ha, he was my best friend.” Or after telling a particularly exciting story in which he figured prominently, and seeing his audience impressed, he will laugh in triumph: “Du halst fun mir, eh, kollegele?”—“I’m O.K., eh, pal?”
Not much could be done in the Little Camp to fill the time between morning and evening meals. There was almost no “organizing,” no possibility of getting additional food or clothing from the SS guards through bribery, because there was nothing left to bribe with. The day was one unending wait filled with hunger pains and endless shuffling in the dirty yard or the cavernous barracks. Death and the stench of death were everywhere: death by starvation and death by burning, death by scientific injection and death by murder for a piece of bread, death by old age and death by disease.
Sometimes, when new transports arrived, frostbite cases by the score lay screaming in the yard and those who were walking outside stepped heedlessly over their writhing bodies. The fires of life were almost extinguished and there seems to have taken place a lowering of awareness that made most things bearable and blotted out perception of the rest.
H. G. Adler in his monumental book Theresienstadt1 comments on this particular aspect of concentration camp life: “Reality was, quite literally, unhinged [ver-rückt]. Nothing in it corresponded to what reality had been. . . . It became unreal and ghostly. It was perceived as a deception, hallucination, dream, as the monstrosities of a sick imagination. . .. One was confused and oneself confounded the confusion. This went so far that the existence of reality was not accepted; it had decomposed into an impossibility, a non-reality. The extent of this process, as a collective phenomenon, is without parallel in the written history of man.”
For Paul, too, his life in Buchenwald remains indistinct. A kind of haze has settled over even his extraordinary memory, and simple facts (like the routine at breakfast) are always sliding away from him, to be recaptured only by checking with his friends. There are also vast areas of life in Buchenwald of which he is totally ignorant. To this day he and his friends know almost nothing about the bitter struggle for supremacy between political and criminal prisoners. Though these struggles took place behind the scenes and in the regular camp, their outcome often affected the lives of Paul and his fellow prisoners in the Little Camp. Nor does he know anything about the homosexuality so widespread in some camps. “Maybe it was going on in the regular camp,” he says. “We in the Little Camp were too weak to think about sex. All we were interested in was a loaf of bread.”
Waiting became the major reality in those last months before liberation. One waited to be fed or to be called to the gates or to be killed. Congregated in small groups, the prisoners filled the long day with talk. What did they talk about? First and foremost: bread. It is curious that neither Paul nor his friends remember talking about any other food. There was no craving for liquor: only the dream of cramming a whole loaf of bread down one’s gullet, not to have to share it with anybody else, but to gulp it down, all of it, at one crack. And then another loaf and another.
When the talk was not of bread, it had to do with the future. None of the prisoners seems ever to have speculated about what he would do next year or five years hence—only about what the Germans would do to him before the war was over. As the signs of Germany’s defeat multiplied—and on this the grapevine was extremely accurate—the tension and fear became greater. The prisoners could not believe that the Germans would let them survive to testify about the camps.
Feeding for the second and last time began early in the afternoon. It took place in a barracks which for some reason was called “Das Kino,” the “Cinema.” The lines began to form as early as eleven o’clock in the morning, but most prisoners tried to hold out until a little later. By three o’clock, rain or shine, hail or snow, the lines seemed a thousand deep, but they moved quite rapidly. The “Cinema” looked like prisoners’ messes everywhere; long tables and low benches, and up front the distributing line. The privileged German prisoners in charge of serving the food had the process worked out with the proverbial efficiency of Germans. One ladled out the lukewarm soup—mostly potato, pea, or turnip—another doled out a piece of bread, sometimes with ersatz jam, and the third marked the prisoners’ food cards to make sure that nobody cheated. A man whose food card had been lost or stolen was in desperate straits. The prisoners ate their meals either in the hall or in the yard, and there again the danger of stealing was great.
The final and the most feared event of the day was the evening roll call. Every single inmate—in some camps even the day’s dead—had to be present and accounted for. In the Little Camp the prisoners lined up four deep in front of their barracks and waited to be counted, first by the Blockälteste and then by the SS man in charge. Quite often, while the SS man was busy with another barrack, the Blockälteste would put his “men” through an exercise, “Mützen ah, Mützen auf! [caps off, caps on!]” and drill them till they did it smartly. Ordinarily the roll call took two hours and, coming at the end of the day, the long wait in the bitter cold was an ordeal. But if even a single prisoner could not be accounted for, either because he had escaped or—and this occurred more frequently—because he had died somewhere unnoticed, the whole camp would be kept on its feet until the missing man was found, occasionally as much as four and six hours later. At long last the inmates were permitted to return to their barracks. Sometimes, Paul says, it was only by mustering his last reserves of strength that he finally managed to crawl up with the others into his bunk, twelve to a board, squeezed tight and all lying on the same side together, waiting.
Waiting for his friends in a small café on Munich’s Mehlstrasse a year later, in February 1946, Paul was slowly and a little noisily consuming a Schillerlocke and a café au lait. Pictures taken at the time show that he was still a little haggard, but his hair, which had been kept shorn for the last four years, was now long in the German fashion, his eyes looked large and clear, and his complexion was soft, almost boyish. He wore a stylish gray leather coat, his elegantly cut suit cost $100, his custom-tailored shirt was of imported English linen, and his cuff links solid gold. A diamond ring glittered on his pinkie and a fat Havana cigar in his mouth; he was, in short, the very picture of a successful petty black-marketeer at the tender age of twenty-one.
After the Americans liberated Buchenwald in the spring of 1945, Paul had stayed around the camp for a while, slowly building up his strength on good American food and the foundations of his fortune on American cigarettes which the soldiers gave him either as a gift or in return for the eggs which he regularly “requisitioned” from nearby German farms. By July of 1945 he was strong enough and had enough cigarettes, then worth their weight in gold, to leave camp, and along with a friend he set out for a hachsharah (a settlement to train prospective emigrants for life on an Israeli kibbutz) that had been established near Fulda. (Going to Israel was then every liberated Jewish prisoner’s first idea.)
The trip was an exhilarating experience. For the first time in four years Paul moved as a free man, and for the first time in rather more than four years he could acknowledge himself a Jew. “You know,” Paul said, when he told me about this episode, “I was not much of a Jew at home and in most ways I was not much more of one when I came out of the camps. I was no more religious, I was no more nationalistic or anything like that. But after all those years when I had to deny my Jewishness, it was wonderful to be able to say I am a Jew. And it was wonderful to see other Jews walking free and upright, to find out that there were still some who had survived, because for all we knew everybody might have been killed. In those first days, whenever Jews met on the street, even if they did not know each other, it was like a holiday. We used to go up to each other and ask: ‘Amcho?’ Amcho means God’s people, Israel. I hadn’t heard the phrase used this way before, but suddenly, after the war, it had become a password for us, and all over Germany you could hear it: ‘Amcho, amcho.’”
Paul never got to Fulda and the hachsharah. On the way he ran into a couple of friends who were going to Munich for purposes of “business,” and he decided to follow them instead. Once there, he stayed for good. “Oi,” he sighs now in reminiscence, “you cannot imagine how well we lived in Germany in those days. You had to be crazy to go and dig ditches in Israel or to learn a trade with a German who made you work ten hours a day and paid a few lousy pennies. And who wanted to be in Poland and work for the Communists in a kolkhoz? I went back to my home town Kielce in 1946. Our house was destroyed, my parents were dead, only a handful of Jews had returned from the camps.
“And what do you think those Polacks had done? That Easter they had spread a rumor that the Jews had slaughtered two Christian children for Passover and then they went and had themselves a regular old-fashioned pogrom. A mob finished off anyone Hitler hadn’t killed. Luckily, for business purposes I was passing as a non-Jew. Brother, I sold the wagonload of leather that I’d managed to get over the border on false papers, picked up a load of sugar, and made tracks back to Germany.
“Now those Germans—you can’t imagine how timid and good they were in those days. We got everything from them, food, housing—and that wasn’t easy to get with everything in ruins—whatever we needed. Once I was traveling to Frankfort to see a friend and the conductor came over and asked for my ticket. ‘I paid already,’ I answered. ‘Let’s see your ticket,’ he said. I didn’t say a word, I just rolled up my sleeve and showed him the number they had tattooed on me in Auschwitz. He walked away, fast. And then I started hollering at him, oh, did I give it to him. But,” Paul adds, “who needed their charity? There was plenty of money to be made.”
The source of this money was, of course, the black market, which in those days spanned the entire Continent and whose capital was Munich. There you could buy and sell—at a profit—what all Europe demanded: bread and liquor, clothes and typewriters, paper and saccharin, genuine dollars and false ones, faked papers and real diamonds. From Munich’s Mehlstrasse the trade routes ran to French, Dutch, and Belgian ports in the west, to Switzerland, Italy, and possibly North Africa in the south and, finding little difficulty in penetrating the Iron Curtain, to the satellite countries in the east.
However deplorable such a situation may have been, the development of a black market was inevitable in postwar Europe with its ghastly scarcities, the disruption of established trade routes, the breakdown of currencies, and the complete absence of governmental authority. But what gave the European black market in those years its special character was the presence, in the midst of the ruined Continent, of the immensely rich, the fantastically opulent American army, laden down—or so it seemed to the starving Europeans—with food, cigarettes, and hard currency. Given the fact that Europe had a large supply of some things the Americans were interested in, notably women, a good deal of exchanging was bound to take place, and the conduits through which ran this golden stream were provided by an army of black-marketeers recruited from all the dispossessed elements in Europe and including, alas, a sizable contingent from the concentration camps. The latter had, in fact, a considerable advantage over their competitors, their survival in camp having depended only too often on their skill in evasion and bribery. In addition, being homeless, they were highly mobile, almost without exception multilingual, and possessed of a thorough (and hard earned) knowledge of several countries. They enjoyed excellent connections (some antedating the war), previous business experience, and all the advantages of belonging to a marked group—solidarity, favorable credit conditions, and up-to-the-minute inside information.
The dollar trade was the mainstay and basis of all other black market operations, and Paul soon became active in it. He took a room in a small town half an hour by train from Munich, and, his pockets crammed with German marks, would go to the nearby American base on the last day of every month, when the troops were paid; sometimes he made the trip more often than that. American personnel stationed abroad were paid in scrip, a currency issued by the army which could legally be used only in the PX. The soldiers, eager to entertain their Frauleins in German bars and night clubs, were willing to buy marks at a considerable discount, say at 65 per cent of what a regular dollar would bring in the market.
Paul was soon well known as a seller of German money and able to find steady customers, so that (working at night) he usually managed to get rid of his marks, no matter how great the quantity, in less than half an hour. The following day, he would sleep late and then consume a substantial breakfast served by his landlady, after which, his wallet bulging with American scrip, he would board a train at eleven o’clock and reach the Mehlstrasse by noon. The Mehlstrasse was as well organized as the New York Commodity Exchange, and considerably more flexible. To the uninitiated it might have looked like nothing more remarkable than a street filled with small groups of exceptionally well dressed DP’s who were always standing around arguing, talking, or just waiting; but Paul knew that every corner, every café, was the post of a specialized trading interest, and if he had, say, a good diamond to sell, he would be able to get his price from one group and then buy perhaps a load of flour from another located nearby.
The minute Paul reached the Mehlstrasse, he would grab the first passer-by and ask, “Was kosten Weiche?” (What’s the price on the dollar?—Dollar bills being known as Weiche, “soft money,” to distinguish them from the “hard” twenty-dollar gold coins for which there was also quite a demand at one time). If Paul was satisfied with the going rate of exchange on the market he would sell his scrip for dollars, usually at not too large a profit, and then, when he felt the price was right, he would exchange his dollars for German marks and start the circle all over again.
Meanwhile the people who had bought Paul’s scrip were forced to travel a somewhat more circuitous route to profit by their dollars. They could neither use the scrip themselves nor redeem it with the American authorities. Because of these difficulties, the usual practice was to work with a high American officer who, for a large rake-off, would pay for the scrip in travelers’ checks. Since German banks possessed no foreign currency, the travelers’ checks had to be collected into a pool and sent by courier to Switzerland, where they were redeemed—legally and in full—in American dollars. From Switzerland the golden stream of U.S. currency flowed back again to Munich, and the circle began anew.
After getting rid of his scrip, Paul would settle back to his Schillerlocken and his café au lait, talk, play cards, billiards, or table tennis, kibitz and wait. Wait for what? For business, gossip, pleasure, or for nothing in particular; it did not really matter. He was well fed, he had plenty of money, and he was surrounded by his friends.
The world of the Mehlstrasse in those days was fascinating to watch. There were small fly-by-night operators like Paul and his friends, and there were the big guns who had the capital to buy truckloads of American cigarettes that had been sent over for sale in Austria, divert them to Munich, and fix the police all along the line. There were confidence men, and there were fixers with connections in the police and the customs. There were thieves, hold-up men, and informers, along with two distinct types of gangsters: the so-called “Blattes,” wily veterans in crime who had served time in all prisons of Europe and were famous for their past exploits, as well as the new men, the “postavchiki,” who made up in daring what they lacked in experience. There were the indispensable forgers, men who could duplicate with equal facility Polish and Russian passports, British transit permits, American military passes, German ration books, and French automobile licenses. There were hordes of deserters from all armies, and there were armies of prostitutes. And all this pullulated in one vast buzzing heap, eating, drinking, making merry and, for a change, watching others starve.
There were many in those years who starved. One of them was Paul’s landlord, a former SS man. For him Paul had devised a special kind of humiliation. He remembered how the SS guards in the concentration camps had taken pleasure in grinding their cigarette butts under their heels and then watching the prisoners dig them out of the dirt. Now, seeing his landlord’s greedy look when he smoked, Paul, in turn, took care always to step on his butt. “Still,” he says, “I did not smoke them down the way the Germans did and I just stepped on them lightly, I did not grind them under my heel. Also, I walked around with an obsession in those days. Whenever I passed a bakery I had to buy two or three loaves of fresh bread which I could never eat. So I’d give them to the landlady.”
But most of the hungry people were those who failed for one reason or another to profit from the black market, or who, on principle, would have nothing to do with it. There were very few of the latter, however, and Paul, remembering the frozen-faced British majors, the high-spirited American colonels, the morose Germans with whom he did business, doubts if there were any at all. Paul is indulgent on this matter; he does not blame the Germans, because they were hungry, and as for the Americans, the English, the French, and the Russians, did not the spoils belong to the victor? He has never volunteered an alibi for himself.
Paul has literally hundreds of stories about life in Munich and every time I hear them they become more elaborate and exciting. His favorite, here cut down to manageable size, concerns the great typewriter “action.” It begins with his buddy Shloime “Greps” returning from Paris with the hot news that there was an enormous demand for second-hand typewriters in France (new typewriters could not be obtained anywhere, even on the black market) and that the prices were sky-high owing to the French tariff on German machines. Paul understood immediately that Shloime wanted to smuggle the machines across the German border, and when he heard that Shloime had “found” an old route the Resistance had used to smuggle refugees out of Germany, he declared himself willing to sink capital and time into the enterprise.
The first thing was to get the typewriters. There were none in the Mehlstrasse and so the two boys—they were hardly twenty-one—began systematically combing Munich for machines. Their best bet, they found, were stores which had sold typewriters before the war and now had switched to other lines. “At first,” Paul recalls, “nobody would admit to having typewriters. If they did, we could just have plunked down our marks and walked away with the machines. Don’t worry, those Germans were sly, all right. So we let them know we knew the ropes. If the owner was interested he’d turn to his wife and say, ‘So, Muttchen, what do you think?’ and she’d answer, “Ach ja, Vati, maybe the Herr Professor from across the street would be interested. What are the Herren offering? The Herr Professor is very partial to coffee.’ Then we knew we were in, because for genuine coffee, Bohnenkaffee, and for real butter those Germans would sell their souls, not to mention their typewriters. When we came back the following day, sure enough, there’d be our machine. Sometimes it was as good as new, you could see it had lain in the store’s cellar all through the war; and sometimes it looked pretty beat up and I guess it really came from the Herr Professor across the street. It made no difference to us. We gave them about twenty dollars worth of coffee we had gotten in the Mehlstrasse and beat it.”
When they had collected a dozen machines, Paul and his friend would crate them in wooden boxes and send them as baggage by rail to a German town near the French border. Boarding the same train, they would claim the “baggage” on arrival and leave it with a friendly hotel owner. In the evening, as soon as it was dark enough, they would hire a truck and transport the stuff to a farm situated very close to the border. There, in the farmer’s barn, they would uncrate the machines and put them into rucksacks. At eleven o’clock Shloime and Paul would each strap a rucksack on his back and another on his chest, with a third to be carried by hand. The farmer and one of his friends would then guide them through the woods and over the border, sometimes even carrying the third rucksack for them. On the French side they would leave the machines with another farmer and repeat the trip, bringing across the other six machines. By then it was usually five in the morning and daylight would be approaching.
They would pay the farmers off with flour, about ten or fifteen pounds to each, and start walking to the nearest railroad station. From there they would take the train to Saarbrücken, soon come to terms with a customer, hire another truck, pick up the merchandise, and make the final delivery. Their profits generally amounted to $300, paid in legal U.S. tender. Then with this money they would buy French cognac and smuggle it back to Munich.
“Brother,” says Paul gleefully, “we had them coming and going. But remember, it was not always so easy. One time the border patrol saw us and started shooting. Mame zisse, I thought my last moment had come. The farmers, those cowards, took off like hares while we were weighed down with those damned machines. Boy, we lay there in that dark forest and prayed for all we were worth while the bullets flew past us. Luckily, the patrol had no dogs with them and couldn’t find us.”
For a while business flourished and Paul and Shloime had to take in four partners, each of whom specialized in a different phase of the enterprise. In the end two of the gang were caught and put in jail for six months. Paul, who had retired from the actual smuggling before that, now decided to leave the business for good, but not before salvaging as much as he could of the last, unsuccessful shipment of thirty typewriters. These, his connections had told him, had been shipped back by the French to Munich. With extreme trepidation he walked one day into the railroad station to claim his crates. But when the clerk asked him to wait a minute, he smelled a rat, walked quietly to the men’s room, dove out of the window, and ran home as fast as his legs could carry him. There was now only one way of recovering the typewriters: to contact the police fixer—quite a job in itself, involving numerous intermediaries and mysterious telephone calls—and to make a deal with him. The fixer’s terms were stiff: a fifty-fifty split. To this day Paul gets mad when he talks about that part of it, but then he resigns himself once more. “A choice I had?” he asks rhetorically. “Listen, when those guys get you, you have to pay through the nose. But it was worth it. Imagine, this guy took me right to police headquarters and two cops in uniform brought out my crates and loaded them straight on the truck. Yes, that’s how we did business in Munich in those days,” and he throws his head back and cackles gleefully.
Play, if one takes Paul’s word for it, was only a little less sensational than business. “Listen,” he once told me, “when we came back from a trip we lived like kings. We went to the finest night clubs, the Regina Palast, Deutsches Theater, and ate caviar and drank champagne. We were the biggest sports in town and doormen and headwaiters couldn’t do enough for us.”
After one listens to Paul’s big stories, the photographs he offers in evidence come as a distinct disappointment. True, the studio portraits show his good profile and display him carefully posed, gazing soulfully into the distance, but the snapshots are less impressive. Is this anxious little huddle of boys really the intrepid band of smugglers, is this mean-looking little sharpie really the legendary Shloime “Greps”? And Paul himself, how small he seems against the giant ruins of the destroyed city! And when I press for details in his stories, Paul will admit, though reluctantly, that the daily routine was by and large pretty prosaic, while some of his friends will declare roundly that it could became quite dull and that their entertainment, and their occupation, for weeks on end consisted of nothing but billiards, table tennis, and cards. There was a great deal of nervous drinking, especially during the later years, when the black market became more hazardous and the German police and the American CIC more efficient. Life was then one unending round of killing time, hanging around street corners, sitting in cafes or poolrooms, waiting for business. There was always room for business, even at night in the night clubs.
But however important business was, and the things its profits bought, there was one thing more important, the only one, I sometimes get the impression, that really mattered: the fact that the boys always worked together. Again and again this note of solidarity, of unquestioned loyalty is sounded in the stories. Jasha, one of Paul’s oldest friends, once said to me, “I always want to be surrounded with Jews; let me be with Chaim, Shmiel, and Yankel, and I’ll be happy.” And Paul, in one of his rare introspective moods, explained, “You must understand that when we left Buchenwald we were just like a bunch of sheep. We had been told for so long what to do, we just could not do anything individually, we had to do everything together. And remember, too, we had nobody else, no parents, no family, no country even, just each other, and we stuck together in good times as we had in bad. And one more thing: remember we were still surrounded by Germans and what they had done was always with us. We did business with them, we lived in their houses, but we never trusted them and they never liked us. It was like being on an island by ourselves. Some of the boys fell in love with German girls and married them, but I never could forget that the only people I belonged to were those guys in the Mehlstrasse.” Thus the years from 1945 to 1949.
Today Paul is still waiting and he is still with his friends. One can see them, when the weather is good, standing in small groups on Broadway and 96th Street, talking volubly in Polish and Yiddish, or silently watching the stream of humanity push past them day and night. Their world is bounded by the cafeteria, the poolroom upstairs, the Chinese restaurant on the next block, and the nearby hotels where they take furnished rooms by the week. Since they came to this country in 1949—about the time when the black market declined—their mode of living has not changed essentially; a certain number may have settled down to steady jobs and marriage—indeed quite a few had done so earlier in Germany—but there remains a small hard core whose roots are sunk into 96th Street and nowhere else.
When Paul arrived here at the age of twenty-four, very little of his European “earnings” was left. His education had ended when he was fourteen, he had no skill of any kind, and he knew only a hundred or so English words, picked up largely in his dealings with the American troops. Most of the older immigrants coming over with him were content to take jobs as stock clerks, machine operators, and the like, hoping to work themselves up as so many had done before them; but unlike them, Paul had never held a steady job or known responsibility. Nor had his life been one to encourage the habit of planning in advance. Having always lived for the day, he now lacked the patience and foresight to endure a dull and badly paid job for the sake of possible future advancement.
It is unlikely that these considerations presented themselves to Paul as clearly as this; most probably, he simply drifted along with his friends, just as he had done in Munich, and took up the kind of employment that they had found most congenial—working in the Jewish resort hotels of Lakewood, the Catskills, and, lately, Florida. Paul started in as a busboy, but when he grew used to the work and picked up enough English, he became a full-fledged waiter. And a waiter he has continued to be and apparently will remain. Off season he returns to 96th Street.
And so his life has taken on a curiously split character; each half has its own locus, its own routine and, above all, its own sense of time, so disparate and so peculiar to itself that the two spheres do not seem to touch except in the singular personality which shuttles to and fro between them.
Away from 96th Street, up in the resorts of the Catskills or down in the hotels of Lakewood during the winter, the work is back-breaking and nerve-racking, the food for the help by and large of inferior quality, the living conditions callously sub-standard, and time itself brutally chopped into pieces by the meat-cleaver hands of the kitchen clock.
Paul is up at seven amid a crowd of weary and sullen waiters, in some hotels squeezed ten to fourteen into a dormitory room jammed with double-decker beds, a few closets, an abundance of trunks, and heaps of soiled underwear and comic books. His working day begins at eight when the dining room opens for breakfast, and rarely ends before nine at night. He may get out for some fresh air between breakfast and lunch, though frequently he does not. He is free for three hours between lunch and supper, but all the rest of the time—seven days a week for more than ten weeks—he is working, often at top speed and to the point of physical and nervous exhaustion.
To and fro he runs, lugging the monstrously heavy trays, the sweat pouring over his face, out of the air-conditioned dining room and into the broiling kitchen filled with hurrying, screaming waiters, himself screaming at the cooks, fellow waiters, bus-boys; always hustling, dodging trays, picking up food, and racing out of the pandemonium back into the dining room, dishing out the food, apologizing to guests when the kitchen has run out of certain items. Almost all waiters are tense while they work, but Paul always hovers on the edge of panic. His eyes bulge, he mutters to himself while he runs along, he forgets orders and rushes back to the kitchen like a man possessed. If traffic gets too busy and he has to wait in line for soup or meat, he is apt to lose his head and to push aside whoever is in front of him. Then there are noisy arguments, recriminations, and, When everything has cooled down, apologies.
Paul’s free time is limited. In the afternoon he goes down to the hotel swimming pool for an hour, but stays out of the water. Not a good swimmer, he is too vain to be seen doing anything at which he does not excel. He sits around for a while, exposes his flabby, oil-smeared body to the sun, and then gets a nap. At night many of the younger waiters go dancing in the “casino,” as the entertainment and dance halls belonging to the hotels are called, but Paul is usually too spent and prefers to drive into town with a couple of like-minded boys for a hot pastrami sandwich and a cup of tea. The ensuing bull session concerns girls, sports, jazz, and the dining room. Paul is an expert on all these topics and ever since he acquired some fluency in English he has invariably monopolized the conversation. He simply out-shouts and out-talks his companions. But what really gets the other fellows to listen is a certain caustic quality in his speech, a sharpness of wit still not quite perfectly translated into English, and the habit of putting his audience on the defensive by a series of sweeping attacks on American mores.
In the end, however, the conversation always returns to the dining room. At that hour of the night weary waiters, waitresses, and busboys sit in snack bars, all-night diners, and restaurants all over the mountains and tell each other the troubles of their day. The air is full of smoke and of “so I says to him” and “he says to me” and round and round it goes, over and over again. But they never tire of it. When Paul and his friends have gotten everything out of their system, they leave the waitress a disproportionately large tip and go back to their dormitories; sometimes they fall asleep immediately, but at other times dice and poker games are on in the hotel, and their uneasy sleep will be disturbed by bright lights and loud arguments.
This, however, is only one side of Paul’s life, the side in which he is not truly himself, or only intermittently so—panicking in the kitchen, hustling customers, or soliloquizing at night. His real life begins with his return to the city, when he blossoms once again into a personality, when he is once again a mentsh. His first appearance on 96th Street would be worthy of an actor. He’ll quietly approach a gossiping group, give the man nearest him a resounding whack on the shoulder, and start cursing him in Yiddish and Polish. “Behemeh!” he’ll scream, “meese chaye,” and launch into a stream of oaths which are accepted in the spirit offered, a virtuoso performance expressing the joy of return and fraternal solidarity. Then he will flash a roll of several hundred dollars and drag somebody down to Phil Kronfeld’s to help him choose a new winter wardrobe.
Paul loves company and he will give anything to be admired; what better opportunity to satisfy both these needs than when buying several hundred dollars worth of sharp clothing? Round and round he’ll turn in front of the haberdasher’s triple mirrors, stretch out his chin, admire himself front, side, and back, and spend a fortune. He will buy flashy sport jackets costing $75 each, Italian silk suits at $150, shoes at $30 a pair, custom-tailored shirts, hand-painted ties, cashmere overcoats setting him back, as he would say, “two yards” ($200).
On the other hand, he is not particularly concerned about his lodgings and he may float around for several weeks, spending a few days with a relative in Brooklyn, a fortnight with some friends in the Bronx, or, if he finds travel companions but not otherwise, he may go to Miami for a month. After a while, he usually settles with a friend into a furnished room in one of the hotels around 96th Street, and there spends the time between working seasons.
Paul’s life in New York, freed from the tyranny of the kitchen clock, is deliberately sluggish and aimless. Appointments are made for “sometime in the afternoon” or “after supper” and the place is left equally vague, “around 96th,” or “ask anybody, they’ll tell you where I am.”
Paul and his friends seldom go to sleep before two or three in the morning, and rarely get up before noon. Then they will make themselves coffee on a hot plate in their rooms, and spend the next few hours reading magazines. At about three o’clock they begin flocking to the cafeteria from hotel rooms and furnished apartments all over the neighborhood. They may go upstairs to the poolroom and while away the afternoon kibitzing or playing pocket billiards. Paul playing pool is quite a different person from the panicky dervish of the Catskill kitchens. Impeccably dressed, he makes the very picture of a gentleman sportsman. When he picks up the cue stick reserved especially for him, the noisy, dingy poolroom with its green tables and cold fluorescent lights, the cries of the players and the clack-clack of the balls, even the chatter of his partner, all fall away into silence. He inclines his head, squints his eyes, and bends slowly over the table; suddently his stick darts out with lightning speed, the ball shoots forward like a bullet, hits another ball, and drops it into a pocket. Point!
The afternoon passes and then the evening and nothing really happens. When not playing billiards or ping pong (a game at which he is also a near master) Paul sits around kibitzing. When he gets hungry he goes down to the cafeteria or to the Chinese restaurant down the street. At night in warm weather he’ll stand outside with his landsmen, but he is too nervous to stay put for long, and sooner or later he will take one of the boys by the arm and walk him along Broadway. Paul suffers from insomnia, and these nocturnal wanderings can last till three in the morning.
At 1 or 2 A.M., when Senator’s closes, those of the gang not otherwise engaged move across the street to one of the all-night cafeterias, filled at that hour with shabbily dressed men and women without a place to sleep, elderly insomniacs, quiet drunks, and tired street walkers. Paul does not bother much with the latter, although he knows a great number of them by name and is as knowledgeable about their various specialties as he is about everything else. By and large, Paul is wary of women; sometimes he goes to one of the German clubs in Yorkville where he can sit down, have a beer, and ask a girl to have a drink with him. He stays away from American girls, though; he does not trust them and apparently has never known one for whom he could feel any affection. For that matter, he seems not to have had any special feelings for his German girls either; in fact, it is remarkable how few his flesh-and-blood loyalties really are.
There is his dead brother’s German wife, now living in Brooklyn, to whom he is very devoted—and there are the boys on 96th Street. But even on 96th Street Paul’s attachment is more to the group as a whole than to any one individual. To be sure, at a given time he will be on particularly good terms with one fellow, room and work with him, but the friendship will rarely outlast the year. In a relatively short time they will have got on each other’s nerves, and the following year Paul will have a new best buddy. The same seems to hold true for the others of the group; its composition may change, relations within it be upset, yet the group as a whole maintains its coherence.
Withal, it is a very matter-of-fact and unsentimental association and one whose members are singularly devoid of illusions about each other. It is based to a large extent on practical considerations. Whether one of the boys is looking for several thousand dollars for a business venture or a couple of bucks for the week; whether he needs a job or a room, witnesses for his naturalization, advice on compensation claims against the German government, or information on business conditions in Europe, he will find them on 96th Street. But apart from this and apart from the social aspect of it, the pleasure of talking in one’s native tongue to friends beset by the same problems; apart from their need to belong somewhere, and apart from the habit of so many years, what binds these men together ultimately are the memories and, perhaps more importantly, the attitudes of the time when they stood all alone against a world which had marked them for destruction, when there was nobody, neither family nor society, who could help them, and when all they had were those who now stand next to them on 96th Street—or, more precisely, those others like them who died on the way.
In the years that have passed since that time the world has changed, but they cannot believe that it has. Is it any wonder that their first impulse is to distrust, that they always expect the worst, that they are never entirely at ease with a Gentile, and remain suspicious of American Jews so determinedly integrated in non-Jewish life? Perhaps if Paul and his friends had been thrown individually into the “melting pot,” their need to belong would have broken down the barriers inside them, and they might at least have become part of the American Jewish community. As it was, they brought over a ready-made community of their own, eigene mentshen, and so had no need to make the effort of reaching across, or the readiness to grow into those new attachments of family and community which would have enabled them to achieve more normal lives. And so it is their ultimate misfortune that the finest thing they have ever experienced, their solidarity, should stand between themselves and growth and maturity.
Now their solidarity, too, is turning sour and sterile, and they constantly bicker with each other. Their present life lacks not only the great and tragic quality which it had in camp, but also the excitement, however spurious, it had in Munich, and it has now degenerated into purposeless waiting, discontent, and fear of the future. What will become of them, what will they be ten, twenty years from now? They don’t know, and there is nothing, they feel, that they can do about it.
And yet, for all the emptiness, Broadway and 96th Street is where the only roots they have in this world are found, and so it is on 96th Street that they are most content. Some of the boys have gone back to Europe, but their letters are not sufficiently enticing to tempt the others to follow. There is a great deal of talk on 96th Street about the good old days in Munich and quite a lot of grumbling about the hardships of life in America, hut never any spontaneous mention of the concentration camps. When I asked him about this the other day, Paul said, “I no longer think of all that as having really happened, or if it did, that it happened to me. I just can’t realize any more that it was really I in that long march to Buchenwald who licked the sooty water off a locomotive to quench my thirst. It seems like something that happened to somebody else.”
To see what 96th Street means to them one need only watch Paul after a season in the Catskills as he settles down in the car carrying him home. He turns on the radio and leans forward eagerly. The strong, sad rhythm of jazz floods the car and Paul in a slightly hoarse voice sings the blues along with Count Basie, with the Duke, with King Cole, with the great Satchmo. “April in Paris,” the announcer says and Paul closes his eyes, claps his hands and sways from side to side. “One mo’ time,” he croaks, anticipating the frayed voice in the radio, “one mo’ time.” Soon, soon, he’ll be back with the boys, all together, waiting.
1 Reviewed in COMMENTARY, July 1956, by Everett C. Hughes.—ED.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
My Friend PaulOne Who Survived
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out, however, that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, however, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.