Trying to take a break from the coverage of our petulant president’s vain and self-created “crisis”, his vanity project of a gigantic wall, and his unprecedented use of extremist “Tea Party” tactics, a president vetoing a bipartisan bill in order to force a government shutdown hostage crisis, I wake up today thinking about death squads, damn it.
History is written in blood, much of it, and that blood is rarely the blood of kings, lords, popes, princes of industry and finance. The tree of liberty, according to an eloquent slave owner who rebelled against British tyranny, is supposed to be occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots, though it’s often hard to sort the tyrants from the patriots without a scorecard. The tally of blood spilled is probably a few dozen tyrants against millions and millions of voluntary and involuntary patriots, not to mention millions of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Tyrant blood is very, very expensive, it turns out; the rest of our blood, incalculably cheap.
It’s easy to see how this works, it is done the same way over and over throughout human history. You create a story in which people who think like you, or who belong to your identity group, are good, and people who don’t think like you, or don’t look like you, are evil. Then it’s all black and white. You can send troops in to clear things up, kill the evil people while lovingly protecting, even sacrificing their own lives, for their brothers and sisters in arms. Somebody called this selective empathy, and it’s a good way to think of it, infinite mercy for my beloved siblings, only death and destruction for evil motherfuckers like you.
In the war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, it was often impossible to know who was “good” and who was “evil” just by looking, and often the only glimpse you got, seconds before somebody’s death, was fleeting. The population was mixed, like every population is, many of them simply trying to avoid death during a war, enemy and friend were often impossible to tell apart. That at least two of the three major recent American wars were based on lies, or faulty but often chanted theories (the Domino Theory, WMD) makes it even worse, but not that much worse.
War often brings a nation together, no matter how much we learn about it afterwards, no matter how cynical the calculation was, no matter how deadly and destructive war always is. Dubya Bush had very low popularity numbers until, after the attacks on 9/11, he became a war time president. His popularity soared. A war time president is usually popular, particularly in a nation where military service is not mandatory and anybody who doesn’t want to die or be maimed in war can safely stay out of it. Would I put it past this grandiose, increasingly beleaguered autocrat to start a war to goose his popularity above 40% ? I’d put nothing past him, how could I? I’d be surprised if he didn’t launch something huge.
Why Death Squad? It’s how unpopular governments always maintain power, through brutality and terror. You, priest, you gave a powerful speech talking about how strongly Jesus would denounce our regime’s torture and disappearance policies? How about we crucify you to the door of your church, padre, for everyone to see how effective those policies actually are? You want to save poor children? How about we leave a pile of them, drenched in blood, at the feet of your crucified body?
I have friends who sometimes poke me about seeing Nazis everywhere. I come by this wariness somewhat honestly. The town where my grandparents, my mother’s parents, came from had a mixed population with about 4,000 Jews, few survived the cold winter of 1942 and the final deadly night in August 1943, when the Nazis decided their fate.
The town was in the Ukraine. The Poles controlled it for many years, and Ukrainians, who remained nationalistic, worked with the Poles. World War One was rough in that town, and then, after the Russian Revolution, the Red Army marched into the area and put up the flags of the USSR. The Ukrainians hated the Russians who, in turn, once Stalin came in, starved literally millions of Ukrainians to death, right before World War Two was underway in earnest.
My grandparents got the hell out while the getting was still possible. My grandmother came to America in 1921, my grandfather in 1923. It was a good thing, because in 1924 strict immigration quotas were put into effect, reducing the numbers from that area to a tiny trickle.
Then my mother was born, in the Bronx, and my father, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As they grew up the world was marching inexorably through the Great Depression toward the second act of the Great War. Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death while taking all their grain. Hitler launched his invasion of the USSR. German troops marched eastward, and behind his troops, einsatzgruppen, death squads. These death squads were mobile units of the Security Police and SS Security Service that followed the German armies to Poland in 1939 and to the Soviet Union in June, 1941. They rounded up and shot partisans, intellectuals and any Jews they encountered. They experimented with gassing, using carbon monoxide from their trucks and vans, but it was inefficient and there were just too many people to kill that way.
Have your captives dig a huge ditch, have the people stand next to it, their clothes neatly piled somewhere else, and take aim at their heads, which pop like pumpkins or melons if you hit them just right. It was a hard job and even dedicated SS men had a hard time doing it for very long. It was the kind of work that could drive a person mad, no matter how strongly that person believed they were doing the right thing.
In my grandparents’ town in the Ukraine the einsatzgruppen were not, apparently, involved when the time came to cleanse the town of its remaining Jews . By August 1943 you had trains running constantly eastward toward huge industrial killing facilities. Jews would be concentrated in various ghettos and camps which would eventually be liquidated by sending them to death camps in long trains of cattle cars. From the Nazi perspective this was a much better arrangement all around, what with the millions of Jews who needed to be eliminated. Then there were small pockets of Jews, in fairly out of the way places, like the survivors of my grandparents’ town.
So the Jews of this Ukrainian town were forced to build a fence between their new ghetto and the rest of the town, while the Nazis took a few hostages, including a brother or nephew of my grandmother’s, to ensure the job was done quickly. The Jews were persecuted, starved, frozen, beaten, many died during the harsh winter of 1942-43. Everybody left in my grandmother’s family, and my grandfather’s (and each was one of seven siblings) was eventually marched to a ravine on the northwestern edge of the town, one night in August 1943. There local Ukrainians, under the guidance of SS officers, took care of the surviving Jews, in the way that killers “take care” of their victims. They acted as an ad hoc death squad, while the SS supervised.
None of this was ever discussed in our home. My grandmother drank to excess as she got older, my grandfather was fearful and sometimes a little withdrawn, but they were otherwise fine. I learned nothing from them, or from my parents, outside of the indigestible fact that everyone left behind in Europe had been killed. It would be decades before I’d get the details, from an indispensable web site, which collected (and translated) the eye witness accounts of survivors, including an account of the schools in that town by a first cousin of my grandfather’s, a guy named Henry, who lived in Baltimore and who I met more than once when I was a kid. His wife was named Goldie.
There was also, amazingly, this account, by either my grandfather’s youngest brother, or, more likely, a nephew. Identified only as Y. Through an amazing, twisted series of misadventures, he was spared the fate of everyone in his family, outside of my grandparents and Henry, who must have emigrated around the time my grandparents did. A horrific story, the wartime experiences of Y. Mazur, but he lived to tell it, went back to his hometown and, after a long court fight, got paid for the family home and made his way to the new state of Israel. I had no idea.
I have searched in vain, as have other family historians, for the exact location of my maternal grandmother’s town, in the marsh south of Pinsk. Wiped from the map without a trace, along with everybody there, like thousands of small hamlets where poor Jews made their homes in that part of the world.
So it never leaves me, the very real idea that when a death squad comes, you’re fucked. There is literally nothing you can do, outside of trying to escape. By the time the death squad is on its way, good fucking luck to you, collateral damage. If a maniac wants to kill you, they usually will. Particularly if it’s nothing personal, you understand.