Only in our peculiar world could a man’s motives be questioned for doing what it takes to identify the Nazi official who signed the orders that led to his family’s murder, then for actually locating the man, and, by falsely befriending him, getting him to admit his involvement in the massacre that ensued once the orders were carried out by some others of Hitler’s willing executioners.
As always, the details are only part of the story. The Nazi is Bernhard Frank, now a doddering man of ninety-seven but once the right-hand man of Heinrich Himmler. Characterized by Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles as an “avid, zealous, passionate, and committed Nazi,” Frank’s signature appears on orders that led directly the massacre of the Jews of Korets, a town in the Ukraine, on July 28, 1941. The man who falsely befriended him is Mark Gould, a forty-one year old resident of Los Angeles. Interestingly enough, Gould is not Jewish. Or not exactly Jewish—he has a non-Jewish mother and was adopted by her Jewish husband and apparently feels connected enough to his adopted father’s family to have undertaken to find out who murdered the Korets wing of the family. Nor is Gould your average Nazi hunter. Burdened by a complicated background that involved a rough-and-tumble adolescence in Texas, he became interested enough to find the documents that authorized the annihilation of Korets Jewry, then somehow found his way to Germany, had the idea to impersonate a Neo-Nazi sympathizer, and managed to worm his way into the inner circle of the man who signed his stepfather’s family’s death warrant. There is basically no way that Frank will be brought to justice. He’s almost a hundred years old. He’s been living openly ever since the war. He actually published a book about his wartime activities. (German-language readers can order a used copy of Als Hitlers Kommandant from amazon.de for a mere nineteen euros.) He has never been charged with war crimes and there are no outstanding warrants for his arrest. He was just a cog in a killing machine. But without those cogs the machine could not have functioned. Stephen Smith of the Shoah Foundation Institute at the University of Southern California wrote about him using these words: “Of all the Nazis that have surfaced over the years, Bernhard Frank sends the biggest shiver down my spine not because he was an outright killer, but because he was active right in the heart of darkness, at the epicenter of the Holocaust, at the scene of the crime. For some reason we let him get away with it.” Yet despite the quixotic nature of the whole undertaking, Gould and a cousin of his filed a federal civil law suit in Washington D.C. the other day against Bernhard Frank. The specific damages being sought were not disclosed. Since there will never be a trial or the outcome of a trial, it hardly matters. So why, the world seems hell-bent on wondering, would anyone launch such a hopeless suit against such a very old man? Can’t we just let bygones be gone by?
The New York Times began its story in Wednesday’s paper cynically by wondering aloud if Gould’s real interest could not possibly be in landing a fat book contract followed by a presumably even fatter movie contract. An article that appeared in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, the other day derided Gould’s claim that Frank was complicit in the murder of his ancestors as “pure junk,” his signature on the order that led to their annihilation a mere detail akin to a secretary’s initials at the bottom of a letter the boss is sending out. (Not only that, but the author supposes that no elderly Nazis should really be allowed to confess to anything since, as a friend of the article’s author put it, “Old Nazis watch a lot of telly too. Sometimes they can’t even remember if they were at Auschwitz or Austerlitz.”) So, if I understand the argument correctly, because some Nazis are senile, they all must be. And because it took an elaborate killing machine to murder that many Jews it hardly makes sense to prosecute single ones of them merely because they haven’t had the good sense already to have died. And, besides, it wasn’t like Frank was in charge of the Holocaust. He was just following Himmler’s orders!
I don’t know why the way this story was reported has irritated me so much. I guess I like the idea that even now, even this many decades later, no Nazi murderer can fall asleep at night fully secure that he won’t end up on the front page of the New York Times or Yediot Acharonot (where the story first appeared) exposed for his role in the mass murder of innocents. And the fact that a man would go to great extremes to find the man who signed the order that led to his family’s extermination not because he really expects to win any damages but simply to show that only the death of the perpetrator means that justice can no longer be served here on earth does not seem farfetched or peculiar to me. Just the opposite, in fact: it strikes me as rational, sane, and supremely moral. I don’t know this Gould fellow, but I think I’d probably like him. His lawsuit certainly seem rational to me, even despite the impossibility of actually winning any meaningful damages! Why can’t the point simply be for the truth to be known?
Part of the problem has to do with the gradual way Americans have turned away from the horrors of genocide. On the wildly popular television show Glee the other night, there was a toss-away jokey line about the My Lai massacre. (Do you all remember My Lai? It was there in Vietnam that 347 civilians, including elderly people, women, and babies, were murdered by a non-rogue unit of the American Army on March 16, 1968. Many of the women were raped before being killed. A considerable number of the corpses were mutilated posthumously. Now there’s a topic worth making jokes about on a national, prime time television show specifically aimed at teenaged viewers!) A few weeks ago, in another attempt at family-based humor, the same show featured Carol Burnett as the mother of one of the regular characters and we were all supposed to think it was hysterical that this shrill harridan was—get this!—a Nazi hunter by profession, by which they presumably meant (given the context) that she was wealthy enough to be able to spend her time gallivanting around the world looking for former Nazis and bringing them to justice. (That there are people in the world devoted to bringing surviving Nazi war criminals to justice was not the point. The point was how funny it was supposed to be to think that a woman depicted so ridiculously would have such a suitably ridiculous profession. You were supposed to laugh.)
In the end, by responding to gags like that on incredibly popular television shows not with outrage but with indifference, we create a world in which the effort of some troubled soul to make known the man who promulgated his family’s death sentence seems almost ipso facto peculiar. (I wonder if Mark Gould thought Carol Burnett was being funny by mocking the efforts of those who really do wish to see justice served. My guess is not.) Of course, in a world in which Broadway not merely tolerates but awards a full dozen Tony Awards to a show featuring funny Hitler and his funny storm troopers singing gaily about their plans to overrun France, what’s a throwaway line on television worth? We need to rein ourselves in a bit, I think, and do what it takes to remind ourselves that there is nothing even remotely funny about genocide. Nor, I believe, is there anything pathetic or bizarre about the desire to see justice served, even if only symbolically and even at almost the last conceivable minute.