Had the war been won, the Nazis believe everything, the war crimes, Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, the concentration camps, all of it, would have meant nothing. “He was right,” Samuel’s grandfather once told him, “for history is the tale told by the victor. Had Hitler won, had he succeeded, I would not be here, your father would not be here and you would not be here. It is as simple as that.” Sitting by the fireside, glasses knelt at the bottom of his nose. That is how Samuel remembered his grandfather. Despite his wealth, the old man preferred to dress the way he was most accustomed, simple, nothing ostentatious, nothing too flash. It was a lesson that he had learned from Hitler: to never stoke-up envy.
Samuel was 14, when he was first shown a yellowing picture of grandfather’s four brothers. The old black and white image of the five of them, in those days they would argue about the most stupid things. The oldest was expected to get married. But he kept telling his parents he was n’t ready. The questions started when he was 21. They just kept coming: 22, 23, 24. The second image of them was the last. Four half starved men, shaven, dressed in stripes: prisoners of a camp which looked a factory but whose only product was death.
Grandfather was the son of a tailor, they owned a large house just yards from their shop in the middle of Berlin. The only stipulation his family put on him was that he married a Jewish girl. Otherwise, he would never have known what religion he was. Change when it came, came slowly, you did not know how but you were aware it was happening. When exactly did they turn on us? Germany was plagued by high unemployment and record levels of inflation. It was the Great Depression. You heard stories of businessmen carrying suitcases of values marks, being turned away when they tried to exchange their empty fortunes for foreign currency. You knew there were a large number of young unemployed men. They just hung around the street corners in groups. Some joined the Communist party, others the National Socialists.
The Nazis came with a promise to make Germany great again, to realise the dreams of von Bismarck and the Kaiser.
Businessmen liked them because they brought law and order. But the Nazis wanted more and to achieve their grand plan all accounts had to be settled – which meant ending the Jewish question once and for all. Jews were to be feared because they belonged to a well organised international power with clearly defined goals and common racial interests. They were the Weltfeind – the world enemy who were standing in the way of the German people and their a thousand year Reich, a utopia based on racial purity. It was all a myth of course.
Genghiz Khan had killed with a gay heart, said the Fuhrer. Who also remembered the Armenians?
Britain and America were to be admired because they knew how to get the message out to their people
A propaganda campaign was launched in which it was claimed that the Jews were ungrateful, that they were users and drug sellers. In one film, Jews were rats sucking the German economy dry. In another, they belonged in a hall of infamy that included Gypsies, Poles, pick pockets and hack journalists.
First, they were made to wear a star, Jews were forbidden from wearing beards. Then the doors of every ‘untouchable’ were marked with a white cross. One morning he woke to see a large billboard erected outside the front window. It was a painting of a hooked nosed Jewish shopkeeper – this man, the poster claimed, earned his fortune through selling German citizens over-priced goods.
The storm troopers came at night.
He remembered the crunching sound of army boots against the ground.
Faster, faster, marching towards the front door, breaking it down.
Eyes focused, chins tense under their Nazi helmets, two soldiers push his mother out of the way. She screams: “He’s only a boy, he’s only a boy.”
To which one of the young men then casually relies:
“But he is not one of us.”
The Nazis had found a new use for railways, they were to be part of a network that transported Hitler’s undesirables to camps with in the German Empire.
One minute, he was in a loving home, the next he was staring from behind the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence. He never saw his mother again. Everyone must have known what the camp was. A smell hung around the place. Passing faces would sometimes stare at the pathetically clad 14-year-old boy who stared back from behind the barbed wire. He was not the only one. But he was lucky – at least his brothers could look after him. At night, they pawned whatever little they had with local shopkeepers who would smuggle in goods for a price.
There was also the view from behind the bars of his cell, where the guards spent most of their time shooting people. First, it was the old, who were lined up against a wall and:
An old woman screams for mercy. She is running across the cold yard. But a cracking sound of gunfire sends her crashing down onto the cold floor.
She was left there for days, along with the others. She lay next to a cart that he thought was full of sticks. But it was full of bones which had been collected by the prisoners over the endless days. They had been collected to be wheeled off to the incineration chamber.
“Why they never took me, I honestly don’t know, I have often thought about it,” Samuel’s grandfather told him. But the Germans had kept him and his brothers for special treatment – they were part of the human experimentation process, or the ramp as it was better known.
“When the allied soldiers came in, they uncovered fresh graves where thousands of bodies had been piled up one on top of the other.
“An in one of the rooms, shaven hair from those who had perished in the gas chambers, had been collected and stored in an atmosphere that choked of bleach and chemicals.”
All the while, as the Germans had set about their grim task, the world turned its back. It was the one lesson that the state of Israel had drawn from the l’hushmid.
Six days in June are forever imprinted in the history of the tiny state of Israel. The year is 1967 and Samuel’s father, Yossi, is there. It began with a daring pre-emptive attack on the Egyptian airfield and ended with the triumphant entry into east Jerusalem, where the faithful flocked to the Wailing Wall and where Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra to celebrate the liberation of the land of the people of Israel. When the Arabs fought they fought hard but too often they fled or simply threw down their weapons and surrendered. Yossi’s clearest memory was a soldier holding a potable radio to his ear eagerly awaiting news of their mortal enemies’ surrender. Standing on the wrong side of the wall, with his prize of a Jordanian car number plate clutched close to his heart, his comrades could all sense imminent victory. Waiting, anticipating, despite the real threat of sniper fire, the men threw down their weapons and began dancing arm in arm. All the while they repeated the words: ‘Ertez Israel, Ertez Israel,’ East Jerusalem, the west Bank, Gaza, Sinai, the Golan Heights – one by one they were falling like a pack of cards. Tears ran down the faces of many of the soldiers as it became clearer the extent to which Israel had succeeded in defeating Nasser. He climbed over the wall, not caring anymore if he lived or died, because his dreams were coming true.
Only two decades before, the Jews were being exterminated in the gas chambers.
Now, they were the victors – a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Jews were now allowed to perform the Masada in a free united Jerusalem.
.Samuel kneels at the site of the Wailing Wall. There, he joins the pilgrims who kneel after their ablutions to pray. Here, the old men with thick beards – grown in response many say to the unwanted growth of western consumerism – rock so close to the wall that it appears they are about to hit their heads. It is here, amidst the chanting and the rocking to and fro, where thousands came to confess their sins that Yossi hopes his son can finally rid himself of the pictures in his head, for Israel’s troubles had not ended, they were fighting on two fronts – southern Lebanon and the liberated territories.
Samuel is taken to the ancient brick, amid the dust and rituals to wait for the Rabbi.
Hands held up, the holy man offers his hand up in a prayer and blows in to the young man’s face.