Monday, May 18, 2009


(This piece appeared in slightly modified form and with a different title -- what's up with that, dear Editor? -- in Issue 13 of The Drawbridge, Summer 2009)

The ice was already melting when Specialist Sabrina Harman posed for snapshots. She hunches low in the frame, her gloved right hand raised in a glorious thumbs-up, a radiant smile lights up her face. Inches from that beaming face: the mouth of a man, agape, stopped in mid-rattle, bandages over his eyes, coagulated blood streaking his cheeks. This man, she was told, had died of a heart attack. There was no way, she knew, this man had died of a heart attack. Still: her fabulous thumbs-up and her radiant smile. After the pictures were taken, Specialist Harman zipped up the body bag. And walked away.
Manadel al-Jamadi had been arrested at his house in Baghdad early in the morning of November 4, 2003. According to eyewitnesses, Jamadi was conscious – walking, talking -- when he was led into a shower room at Abu Ghraib for interrogation. Forty-five minutes later, Jamadi was dead. His interrogator had the prisoner hooded, his hands tied high behind his back, shackled to a window bar. This position is known as Palestinian hanging, or strappado. It crushes the ribs; the lungs and the diaphragm have only little room to expand. Put simply: Manadel al-Jamadi was crucified. He died within thirty minutes. On his way home, the interrogator threw Jamadi’s bloodied hood in the trash; the hood was never found.
When questioned about the photographs, Specialist Harman said: “I guess we weren’t really thinking: Hey, this guy was just murdered. I know it looks bad. But it was just -- Hey, it’s a dead guy, it’d be cool to get a photo.”
We only know of Jamadi through these photographs. His arrest and transfer were never recorded, let alone his death. Jamadi simply did not exist. His corpse was smuggled out of the prison on a stretcher, an I.V. in its arm; a local taxi-driver was paid to dispose of the body; the body was never found.
When questioned, his interrogator confirmed that no information was obtained from the prisoner.

* * *

In the Pathologie -- the mortuary – of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, half an hour north of Berlin, a skull stands on the windowsill of the small shared doctors’ office. Tibetan monks use the skulls of their masters as bowls to drink milk from, but this is nothing like that. An electrical cord runs through a bullet hole in the back – one or the other handy surgeon had converted the skull to a lamp, light streaming out of the eyes and nostrils, light seeping from between clenched teeth. Likely the owner of the skull was one of the thousands of Soviet POWs that passed through the camp during 1942. It was cheaper to kill the Soviet prisoners-of-war than to feed them. They entered the camp through Turm A; then they were marched directly to the crematory -- Station Z. In the antechamber, an SS doctor told them to disrobe and took their vital signs. Then he showed them into the next room, where their height was to be measured. This room was double-walled; a gramophone blasted military marches. The prisoners put their heads against a set of slats with measurement marks; there were holes between the slats and behind the holes stood soldiers with their guns. No last words for these prisoners, no last look at their loved ones. Extinguished ,just like that: a bullet through the brain stem and down they went. You could just picture some young internist marveling at the neatness of the hole in this particular skull – dead center and just the right diameter. Later, in 1943, a gas chamber was installed in Station Z. Much more efficient. Much cleaner. In case of attempted escape, there would be a public hanging in front of the assembled prisoners; strappado was the method of choice.

* * *

Sometime in March or April 1943, Stella Goldschlag stood at her window in the Sammellager – the former Jewish nursing home in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It was the early evening of a gorgeous Spring day, and heaven knows those are rare in Berlin. From her window, she had a good view of the Jewish cemetery -- right underneath was the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, the great scholar and philosopher from the time of Frederick the Great. Mendelssohn had been a big proponent of the integration of Jews and Germans; he had done the first Hebrew-to-German translation of the Torah, as a service to the gentiles. On an open space in that venerable cemetery with its picturesquely sunken monuments, Stella noted much laughter and merriment. A few of the guards had taken off their uniform jackets; they were playing soccer. Four jackets marked the goal posts. The ball they were using must be flat, Stella thought, it refuses to bounce. Then she looked more closely. The object that the guards kicked back and forth was not a soccer ball. It was a human skull.
Stella had a secret of her own. Stella was a Greifer, a catcher: Each day she went into town and made her living pointing out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. For every person she brought in, the Gestapo paid her 20 Reichsmark. More importantly, for every person she brought in she could point out a prisoner – a friend, a family member – and that person would be spared. Except that they wouldn’t. When Stella found out, she did keep up her gruesome business, if just to save her own life and that of her fellow-catcher boyfriend.
The very first person Stella ever denounced was her husband.

* * *

These stories add up. Because they are true – in many senses of the word. Because the world is not the same without them. These stories tell us who we are. Terror, torture, wanton executions -- this is what humans do. Sure, we love. Sure, we paint and write and dance and sing. But this cavalcade of horror is not an aberration. We paint and write and dance and sing. We are built to play. And players like their toys. Need their toys. All you need to do is convince yourself that this human being is not at all like you, and he becomes -- your toy.
Holding another life in your hand is the ultimate possession. You carve a person’s flesh. His mind, his identity, his future, his fate rests in your hand, and yours alone. You can twist his very soul until it breaks and – oh yes – you will. For he is — wholly — yours, and how could you resist? Yours to toy with, yours to maim, yours to kill. This human being is now your literal slave; he has no recourse, no mercy, no law, than the recourse, the mercy, the law that is you.
You may try to deny it. You may grab into your bag of many selves, to pull out cunning masks and sly disguises. You may invent reasons; you may invent reason. But deep down you know – you know you have now become a god, and that gods are destroyers of worlds, for what else is left to do after you first made it all?
Shock. Horrify. Appall. Move on. Repeat. Let humanity’s inevitable inhumanity intersect with humanity’s equally inevitable insistence on humanity at some vanishing point way beyond any rational horizon.

* * *

Josef Mengele, the doctor who oversaw the triage on the arrival platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau – the inmates called the arm-flapping physician der weisse Engel – was also the chief medical officer of the Zigeunerlager – the Gypsy camp. Twenty thousand Roma and Sinti in total. Families were allowed to be together; more than 300 children were born there. Whenever Mengele walked through the camp, the men would play their fiddles, delighting him with waltzes and mazurkas and polonaises, and the women would hit their tambourines and dance—they all knew how much the Herr Doktor loved music. “Uncle Mengele!” the children cried. “Uncle Mengele!” And he gently stroked their little heads and softly squeezed their wasted cheeks, and he put sticky chocolates in their eager little fists. The story goes that on the day the last remaining three thousand Gypsies were to be killed – August 2, 1944 – Mengele sought out his very favorite child. He took him by the hand and stuffed his mouth with candy and then he walked the boy all the way to door of the gas chamber.
Holding hands.
Just like when, against a backdrop of the bluest of skies on the most luminous of Tuesday mornings in lower Manhattan, people -– random strangers -- joined hands to jump –- together -- from the 102nd floor of the North Tower, not knowing by what decree of what fickle god they were dying, but knowing they wanted to do it together.

* * *

I have this feeling that when humanity will finally have managed to get the planet rid of its presence, the one god still remaining will watch the plumes of smoke with detached neutrality.
Then she will sit back, relax, and at last enjoy the silence.
Our biggest fear is this: That we live for the same reason Jamadi, the nameless Soviet prisoner, Stella’s victims, Mengele’s little Gypsy friend, and some 3,000 Manhattan office workers died.
For no reason at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Our biggest fear is this: That we live for [...] no reason at all."
No, this is not our biggest fear - this is simply the truth :) (why do we humans always think that we are something very special that must have any sense?).I would have no problem if the world gets rid of our species - but unfortunately we can't seemingly go without destroying the whole system 'earth' (still seeing ourselves as the creation's crowning glory). Not recognizing that all we are is: Finite. Stupid. Humans. Stupid humans. Bigheaded. Cocky. One species beyond others. No more, no less. With the ability to speak and to write (okay not all of us - and not all of us in English). The human race is going to leave and to annihilate our planets' artwork. Destruction is the choice of mankind. His leg is hanging out of the picture; his arms are bending up the frame. And I can't exclude myself from this. We are so used to misuse each other and we are so used to misuse nature that we don't even recognize it.