Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the Price of Intolerance [originally written in 1999]

[Dear Readers:  my business partner Jaime Kuklinski sent me a very painful powerpoint reminding us about the horrors of the Holocaust; having just visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. several weeks ago, the topic is fresh on my mind during this time of great change in our country.  I am republishing this in Immigration Insider for those of you who might be interested in reading it.  Jose]


MAUTHAUSEN, AUSTRIA- The snow is blasting on the windshield as Leah
pulls the rented VW Passat out of Mauthausen, onto the road which leads
us back to the beautiful village of Enns, with its funky medieval
storefronts. It is 1 p.m. but the car's very cool blue dashlights are
aglow, casting a strange hue on our faces. The car is very quiet as we
head eastward, the not-so-blue Danube, broad and mighty, alongside the
road. The sky is gray and so is the mood in the car. The boys sit in
the back, blankly staring out the window. We are supposed
to be heading west, toward Linz, the provincial capital of Upper
Austria, for a final day of sightseeing. But the plan has changed. We
pull into the first and only McDonald's for some pommes frites (yes, I know, but that's what they call them here, too...) and reflection.



That Friday was our last day in Austria, on our first trip to that
beautiful part of Europe. My little business trip had turned into a
week-long family vacation with three days of skiing the Austrian Alps
and two action packed days of sightseeing. The snow had been sublime,
the bed and breakfast arranged for me by a client, outstanding. As
usual, I was the oldest snowboarder on the mountain, but the kids were
far more polite to me than the helicoptering, megapierced lunatics
airborne in the great American West. In fact, we were the only
Americans in a part of the Alps so remote that all the other tourists
were German and Austrian...met one other American in an entire week in
the country.


We had three days on the mountain, and the snow was so heavy that we
didn't see the moon, the stars, or the sun for the entire week. My
Caribbean soul found this a bit disconcerting, what with my nightly
habit of greeting Orion, the Pleides, and the Moon, but, hey, the snow
was soft and forgiving and my spectacular wipeouts went unpunished.
Besides, it was only a week. For the other two days, we had to choose
carefully: picking two, day-drive destinations in Austria is like
picking an ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins or a cigar at Mike's in
Miami...too much good stuff to choose from. We settled on Salzburg, the
birthplace of Mozart (among many other things) and Mauthausen, a
preserved concentration camp which, in World War II, was amongst the
most notorious Nazi camps in all of Europe. Like responsible parents,
Leah and I told Alex and Danny that it was important for us to see
first-hand what the Holocaust was all about, and that another day of
skiing was not more important.



Our trusty Frommer's Austria Guidebook described the trip
to Mauthausen as "a sobering outing."
The trip from Vorderstoder, high in the Alps, to Enns and across the
Danube to the camp took about an hour and a half. (Incidentally, until
reading the history of the camp, I had no idea just how much Austria
had cooperated with the Third Reich when the Germans came in. However,
as Leah noted, what could a bunch of rural farmers do to resist at that
stage? To Austria's credit, they have faithfully preserved the camp and
memories, acknowledging the responsibility that comes with having this
place on Austrian soil.)


We prepared the boys by telling them that the things we had all
learned in school about the murderous Nazi's, their delusional desire
to "cleanse the race," and their atrocities would now come alive in
images we would not soon forget. We told them about intolerance, about
the arrogance of presuming racial superiority, and about the human
tendency to create "us and them" dichotomies. We talked about how
Judeo-Christian teachings emphasize the Golden Rule, treating others
the way we wish to be treated, and about how the American forefathers
perceived accurately that "all men are created equal." We discussed how
things in Europe had gotten out of control, how one madman's political
agenda had turned into genocide, and wondered how people had agreed to
the underlying "logic." We talked about the politics of hatred and the
strength of such frightening bonds.


We were one of about four cars in the parking lot. We made our way
through the snow and ice covered entrance, through the great gate and
stone footings. The vast camp was a virtual killing field for the
Nazis: in addition to murdering thousands of Austria's Jews, thousands
of "undesirables" including homosexuals, gypsies, Spaniards, Russian
war prisoners- you name it- were put to death within these walls. The
total number of Nazi murders within these few acres: about 200,000.


We toured the grounds and museum and an attendant led the four of us
to a screening room where we sat and saw the English-language version
of the story of Mauthausen. I then led Leah and the boys, with our
little English handbook, through the camp and we saw it all. All of us
cried at one point or another. We saw:




  • the photos of the naked living skeletons denied food...men, women, and children...

  • the gas chambers where they were herded by the dozen, and the
    fingernail scratches on the stone ceiling, and photos of those killed
    there left by family members.

  • the custom built gallows for quick hangings.

  • the "medical" office where prisoners were told to line up facing the wall to have their height
    measured, and a bullet was fired into their forehead.

  • the mass graves

  • the photos of men dangling, dead, on the concertina and barb wire

  • the brothel for the camp's commanders

  • the human experimentation records where atrocities were committed in the name of "science"




We heard in the video various recollections of liberation day, when the
U.S. forces came in through the front gate. Several freed prisoners
recalled the day with the precision and cold description that can only
be delivered by someone who has faced the demons every night since, and
who has somehow found a place to file it all away and stay sane. Not so
with one of the American servicemen recalling that day. He starts off
calm and then breaks down and cannot stop, describing what the people
looked like, how they continued to bury hundreds per day after the
liberation, because the dying were too weak to eat. Because, as he put
it, we were too late.


We saw it all, but what we saw most were numbers. Numbers of
prisoners from each country. Number of homosexuals. Number of deaths
this month and that month. Numbers of days chalked on a cell wall.
Numbers of bodies buried or cremated at the virtually 24 hour a day
crematorium, where workers were ultimately killed by the Nazi's in an
effort to keep them from ever telling anyone what they had seen. Death
and snow everywhere you looked. Two hundred thousand lives.


I know what you are thinking right about now: that's SOME vacation
for your kids, Jose. But my kids are learning about the world, and
their vision is clear. The visit was devastating to the four of us but
it was necessary. We're back in America now, where the U.S. Congress is
proposing a moratorium on immigration. Although the chance of passing
is very remote, it certainly is an indicator of the thinking and mood
of the American public. And it all uncomfortably ties together in my
head...the proposed immigration moratorium, Mauthausen, the dragging
death of the black man in Texas, the shooting of the unarmed African
man in New York...what does it all mean?


If you ask the sponsors of the Moratorium Act, I can tell you the
catch phrases: "control our borders," "protect American workers,"
"control population growth"...all admirable goals and very real in this
day and age. I'd be a liar if I didn't tell you it bugs me to enter a
store in Miami and realize that no one speaks English...I'm as guilty
of that as the rest. But, as a Hispanic male living in America, I
wonder if there is more to it. I wonder if all of this is, perhaps due
to the fact that America is becoming less "white," like Hitler's
Germany was back then...


If a single thing is memorable from Mauthausen, it's the
documentation of the Nazi's last minute, hysterical efforts to conceal
their atrocities. As the Allied forces were approaching, the gas
chamber was disassembled, documents were forged, bodies were buried en
masse. To me, it says a lot. Despite all of Hitler's propaganda,
despite the Master Race crap, these bastards were ashamed. Instead of
running for their lives, they had to try and cover their bloody tracks,
as absurd as it must have seemed at that time. They didn't want the
world to know what they had done.


Today, once again, we hear about the neo-Nazi movement worldwide,
and we see the tightening of immigration laws in Europe and the U.S.,
and we intellectually discuss the respective economic issues and
impact, trying to come up with "rational" policies. We think there are
too many Nicaraguans in the U.S. but our housekeeper is the exception.
We berate the Mexican migrants who picked the vegetables we buy at the
produce section of Safeway. And, as a nation, we cringe at reading the
statistics that show that the black, Asian, and Hispanic populations
are growing far more rapidly than the "white" population. Why is this
an issue if "all men were created equal?" Why should any of us care --
Hispanic, black, white, or otherwise?



As we sat there that Friday, at the Austrian McDonald's, eating our pommes frites,
drinking Cokes, discussing what we had seen, our family forever
changed.. My cocky 10 year old Alex expressed his appreciation for
America and the freedom we have. My sensitive 7 year old Danny was
hugging me, telling me he loves me...I saw in his eyes he understood
what he had just witnessed. My wife, tough as nails and our family's
glue, said that she would never take our lives for granted again. Me, I
still see the looks in the eyes of the people in the pictures and I
wish I could turn back time. Two hundred thousand lives, dreams, hopes
and prayers...


Seems to me that as we craft the future of our nation, it behooves
us to take a "sobering" look at the past and we must remember: never
again.


Copyright 1999, Jose E. Latour



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