|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
In a world too precariously poised, one may begin to see aberrations everywhere. But the realization that war was man's ultimate madness would not dawn on me until after I had returned from my own war. The fight against Hitler was just, I was convinced when I enlisted in 1942, and rationalized my pacifism. It need not have come to World War II and the Holocaust - if the Western Powers had only realized, in time, that Hitler was motivated by wider goals than his proclaimed "Drang nach Osten" (Drive to the East). The war became inevitable, all preceding steps leading straight into it. It was not patriotism which motivated my enlisting; I dreamt of revenge and "cold blooded courage" - to face my childhood tormentors, grown into Nazi soldiers. The sweet smell of vengeance beckoned.
Inducted into the U.S.Army at Ft. Dix, I received my basic training at Camp Crowder, spent time at the University of Illinois in ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), then more training at Camp Ritchie, the Army Intelligence training center (in 2003 becoming well known through The Ritchie Boys, a German produced documentary film), and final instructions in England. Nine days after “D day”, my convoy sailed out of the same port I had departed nine years earlier for America. Before the coast of Normandy I looked out over the Allied Armada covering the sea as far as the eye could reach - battleships, cruisers, destroyers, troop ships, and landing crafts spewing out onto the beaches ever more troops, vehicles and tanks. The skies were filled with barrage balloons, and above, wave after wave of Allied planes streaked in from their English bases to pound the German lines. The sights and sounds were music to my ears. I stood at the railing in all my battle gear and - wept. In my wildest dreams of "revenge", I could not have imagined returning to Europe with quite such an awesome armada.
Watching the tanks rumble up Omaha Beach, I had wished to be part of them. However, various army tests must have convinced my superiors that their rather frail soldier might better serve more demanding intelligence. The “Third Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company” to which I was ultimately assigned, was a conglomerate for all manner of Intelligence and Psychological Warfare. It was composed of mostly European refugees, among them Stefan Heym, who, after the war, would return to East Germany to become its "most prominent novelist" as well as a member of the German Parliament. But while still army buddies, there were constant, often agitated debates, especially on the future of a new Germany, in which also Leon Edel (eventually, biographer of Henry James) participated. For Heym it could only be a Germany without not only Nazism, but also Capitalism. "Fascism is the ultimate expression of Capitalism", he would insist. One or another of this motley group of Intelligentsia would remind Heym of the bloody excesses of Soviet Communism. I had to agree with Edel that, with all its shortcomings, Democracy was the only alternative, paraphrasing Churchill "Democracy may be a terrible form of government, but all others are worse".
After landing in Normandy, Sergeant Simon J. Lewin was assigned the task to persuade German soldiers to surrender - by loudspeaker and leaflet, and, on occasion, interrogate just surrendered prisoners. Some reports were to find their way to the OSS, wartime predecessor to the CIA. My gear had to include, however, the standard infantry rifle (the M1), which I found far too heavy and soon managed to replace with a much lighter carbine, certain that I would have a chance to use it. To "die a hero's death" has, perhaps, always been the cowards' way out of ordinary existence. But just before landing on "Omaha Beach", the convoy came under enemy air attack and everybody was ordered below deck. I was well trained and obedient, but common sense told me that had the ship been hit, everyone below deck would certainly have drowned. In the darkened bowels of the ship, which only increased the sound and concussions of the nearby exploding bombs, I trembled and my heart pounded so hard and loud I thought my chest would burst; I felt faint and began praying. I loathed myself, not only for being a coward, but a hypocrite as well - after the "all clear" sounded.
Within a few days after finally landing, I was assigned to scout the perimeter of the company's bivouac area. Passing a line of hedges I saw what I thought was a man asleep. But this was a German soldier and he was not sleeping but dead - my first confrontation with the enemy. Soon after, I discovered Calvados, a strong, vile tasting drink, distilled from Normandy's apples. The first time I tried it, all my erstwhile prohibitions rose up and I began vomiting as though my guts would come with it. But my distaste to alcohol soon went the same as my aversion to chicken. Later, in Cognac, trying to help eliminate a German army pocket at Royan, I discovered that Cognac was indeed made in Cognac. Usually beyond the control of headquarters I had no difficulty evading Army regulations about alcohol consumption.
I never did find out whether it was the alcohol (some, not only vile but possibly poisonous), which my guts could not stomach, or was it the constant bouncing in jeeps and armored half-tracks, but my urine soon turned dark and darker and finally emerged as almost pure blood. Concussions from exploding shells ( which occasionally sent me sprawling) might also have contributed to my internal dilemma, even though, throughout the war, I escaped their more deadly shrapnel. "Probably some internal kidney, liver or urinary problem", the Army medics diagnosed, and wanted me sent back. "I'll stay till the war is over", I pleaded in mock heroism. And so it was that my military route through France, Belgium and Germany was sprinkled and marked by a not very aromatic mixture of piss and blood and occasional vomit.
Sometime in August, after the most ferocious day and night bombardment of the German lines, the U.S. forces broke out of the Normandy beachhead and raced to cut the Nazi army in half. One pincer was to wheel toward Paris and the other West into Brittany. I was ordered West and would not see Paris - my beloved but traumatic Paris - for many weeks after its liberation. One night, still somewhere between Normandy and Brittany, asleep and now almost used to the steady drumbeat of cannonading, I woke with a start. A brilliant, sulfuric light was slowly floating to earth. It lit up the inside of the pup tent I was sharing with Mirko (originally, from Yugoslavia), an army buddy, his face reflecting not only the bright light but panic. The first light was soon joined by a second and a third, and the night turned into day, and the drone of enemy planes was overhead. A whistling sound, starting faint and far, became louder and louder and then exploded as one bomb followed another and another, faster and faster, nearer and nearer. "When under night attack, don't move, don't panic, don't run, ¬especially, do not run." That was part of basic training which had been drummed into me and which, like all other instructions, I tried to follow obediently.
"Oh my God, oh my God", I could hear my companion bolt upright, his eyes and mouth aghast with growing terror. "Don't move", I pleaded. But suddenly Mirko shot out of the shelter into the brilliant and exploding night. One moment's hesitation and I ran after him (panic, like madness, is highly contagious). I ran and ran, out of the sheltering orchard in which we were bivouacked, down a hill, crashing through brambles and finally threw myself down, clinging to the stone base of a barn. Behind me, the bombs were still whistling and screaming down, joined by the staccato of strafing planes and the ack-ack answer of anti-aircraft batteries. After what seemed an eternity, the lights faded and all was dark and silent again. A light rain was falling and, when towards dawn, I roused myself, chilled and drenched, I was not sure whether I was soaked from the rain or had peed in my pants.
Soon after, I got my long dreamed "revenge". In a street in Brest, the German submarine base at the tip of Brittany, I was scouting for a vantage point from which to broadcast some entrenched soldiers into surrender. Suddenly, however, I found myself caught in enemy fire. Crouching in a doorway, I lifted my rifle and took aim at one German soldier firing from a window. But I was shaking and in cold sweat. "Don't pull the trigger - squeeze it", had been the instruction in basic training. I did not so much as aim my rifle but point it, and the moment I pulled (not squeezed) the trigger, I bolted and ran. “What if, even with trembling fingers, I had shot him"? I wondered, after I stopped shaking. There were but a few other such incidences for the rest of my time at war, with however no improvement in my aim. Ultimately, long after the war, I thought that the worst part of war might not to get killed but, possibly, to have killed someone, or so I try to ease an uncertain conscience.
But during that same battle for Brest, I also witnessed what should be considered true heroism, and it was not from any soldier: The German defense was stubborn, its fire devastating. Along one dust choked street, soldiers crouching in every doorway, there appeared, like an apparition, an old woman carrying a basket of probably just harvested apples and pears. Oblivious to any danger, she made her way from doorway to doorway, offering her fruit to any soldier along the way. I had no stomach for the offering, but would never forget the sight.
Heroics, cowardice, brutality - war seems to illuminate them all in the starkest, darkest light, but especially, brutality. In a small town near Lorient, I was asked by members of the local FFI (the French resistance forces), with which I sometime had to coordinate my own activities, to help interrogate a German prisoner. Even though I had disdained the German language ever since I fled Germany, I still knew it fluently, as well as French. The German prisoner had been caught hiding in a house where he had stayed behind as the retreating German army moved on, and he had replaced his uniform for civilian clothes - obviously a deserter from his unit, I tried to point out to my French counterpart. Nevertheless, the FFI condemned him to be shot - as a "spy". I was invited to witness the execution. I declined. I was sickened: the soldier was a mere, very frightened boy.
Eventually, a soldier settles down to war - in both body and mind. Not that he has suddenly become "brave". He has become "seasoned", meaning: dull and all his senses blunted. War has become routine. It seems as though nothing can shock him any more, no matter any disembodied bodies, gore, severed heads, hands and limbs, bloodsoaked and fragmented beyond decent recognition and the always foul stench. Constant day and night bombardment no longer troubles him; occasionally, he even fails to "take cover". It has nothing to do with bravery. Stupefying numbness leaves him progressively more mindless. Everything becomes routine, automatic, and automatically he follows and gives orders. It was this realization, even before I had reached that point myself, which persuaded me to devise what would prove to be a most effective Psychological Warfare weapon:
Soon after landing in Normandy, I realized that offering only the traditional choice of "death or surrender" was useless against soldiers trained to follow orders – obediently. “Don't mention politics, or allude to their 'loved ones at home'; even patriotism becomes lost on a battlefield. Just convey definite, simple instructions on ‘how to surrender", I proposed to my superiors, and then devised a simple phonetic way to teach enemy soldiers a few simple steps: "Ei ssorenda" would become the basic message of every leaflet and every loudspeaker appeal directed into enemy lines, together with a few simple steps on "how to surrender". Repeated over and over, this tactic proved increasingly effective. Eventually, I learned, from some just captured prisoners, that long before surrendering, they had practiced among themselves the "correct" pronunciation. "Ei ssorenda" became an insidious challenge, intruding into enemy minds and eventually the trigger for surrender. Subtly and obliquely, the strategy - call it brainwashing - worked.
“Targeting” a particular Wehrmacht unit, I might begin with some “small talk”, soldier to soldier: What, for instance, we had for breakfast - “shit on shingles”(a rather tasty creamed beef on toast), which would always get their attention, then proceed with a description of the latest Russian Army advance on the Eastern front and the necessity to end this “damn war”. “It’s time you get home, make babies, rebuild Germany”, finally followed by instructions how to surrender safely. “Ssorenda!” my loudspeaker would blast into the German lines - without a tremor, let alone fear. Often, on the way to an assignment, I was afraid, and fearful that my voice would betray me. But during the very first encounter with the enemy, the voice I heard did not sound what I had feared would be my voice. The army training had done its job - transformed whatever I had been into a soldier, almost mechanically, automatically doing what a soldier was meant to do. I was no longer the man I was, or thought I was. When the tactical situation was right - mostly when the Germans were surrounded - the demand to surrender was successful. Occasionally it was met with a salvo, or worse. Afterwards, at night, I would drink myself into a stupor.
Toward the end of the war, at an airstrip, I noticed a poster by the U.S. Air Force, boasting of its part in dropping the leaflets and spreading the idea and word of "Ei ssorenda". The exact numbers could never be verified, but it was substantial. At one point, a road junction deep in Germany already, I finally grew tired watching seemingly endless columns of just surrendered Nazi soldiers march by. For my part, I received the Bronze Star Medal and several Citations, but as soon as I returned home, I discarded all medals and citations, and eventually, came to regard any and all honors, awards, rewards and prizes as somehow fraudulent. The one exception came years later, in 2008, when inducted a “Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor”, my acceptance remarks recalled:
“On June 16 1944, when I landed on a Normandy beach, it was as though I had returned home. Eleven years before, in l933 as a l4 year old refugee from Nazi Germany and aspiring artist, it was France that had opened its door and welcome. France, and especially Paris, had always been the dream and goal for artists, as well as refugees, the world over. On that June morning in 1944, I may, in fact, have landed on the very same beach I had walked along in 1933 to see what artists such as Monet, Signac, Van Gogh and many others had found so picturesque. Of course, that same beach did not appear quite as picturesque from a Navy landing barge. And I never imagined that I would return to France with quite such an armada that brought us ashore. But my years in France – before, during and after the war – I shall forever remember, not only with nostalgia but gratitude, and consider my participation in the liberation of France a great privilege.”
At almost the end of the war, passing through Weimar, I learned that Buchenwald was not far off. Reports of the full horror of the concentration camps were just coming through. Shortly before, advancing into Germany, I had been through a few "Lager", work camps for foreign slaves. "Liberation" most often meant that the Nazi guards had already fled, leaving behind the sick and dying, caused mostly by overwork, disease and starvation. The discovery of systematic extermination came as a numbing shock, numb as I was. The term Holocaust had not yet formed.
Fortified with Schnapps, I drove out to Buchenwald one early Spring morning, past U.S. Army sentries at the gate. A foul stench still hung in the air and in the eyes of the recently condemned who still occupied the same old barracks. Its inmates continued to be contained within the same camp long after its liberation; "D.P." (Displaced Persons) camps had not yet been organized. More and more inmates began to surround me as I tried to make my way around the camp. They looked more like recently bald skeletons than alive, even though now on a diet of "G.I." rations. Some tried to smile; it seemed more a grotesque grimace; but they had survived. "How long will we have to remain here? When can we leave? Can we come to America?" were some of the questions. "I'll see what I can do", I lied. They followed wherever I tried to go, repeating the same questioning stares. I tried to avoid them, especially their eyes which all appeared overly large within their emaciated faces. "Would I recognize any", I began to wonder "from my Berlin past?" They appeared unrecognizable, almost non-human.
Trying to avoid the horror I saw in their faces, I pulled away, again and again, and finally succeeded to elude the group which had followed me about. Eventually, I found myself alone, in Buchenwald's crematorium. Its ovens were cool now, the oven doors wide open but still begrimed with the soot and ashes of its recently cremated. I turned away into the darkest corner and sank to my knees and baring my head I prayed and broke down and cried, but quickly gathered myself as I heard some people entering, and bolted past them and out - "out, out, out, out, out!"
Soon after, I checked into the nearest medical station: I was urinating and vomiting blood worse than ever and my insides felt like one wrenching mess. I knew that I was finished as a soldier, seeing the world for what, I thought, it was: a slaughterhouse, a bordello and an insane asylum, run by butchers, pimps and madmen. And man? - a festering, putrid, slimy excretion polluting the face of earth. A hospital ship brought me back to America and half a year later I was discharged -"as good as new" one of the doctors said. I was not so sure.
Never again can you be the same. Some events can never be forgotten, no matter how deep I tried to bury them, or attempt to elicit some sense from what increasingly I saw as "that mad butchery". Especially, during a “close encounter”, you revert to that of a crazed animal, oblivious to all otherwise normal expectations of human conduct. This is what “Basic Training” trains you for – to kill. Why, the surprise, when returned to “civilian life, this “basic” training remains in your very guts, manifested in violence, broken homes, violence, madness and murder. Only victims remain even when “victorious”.
Why then do men march off to war and slaughter, over and over again, beckoning to be far more exciting than any ordinary existence. During the months spent in Army Hospitals, in my more lucid moments, I had time to wonder and finally conclude: It must be our testosterone that, time and time again, drives men crazy, craving excitement, the excitement of competition and ultimately war. Let women take over if ever we really wish for Peace! In the years following the war, I was delighted to see that, indeed, more and more women were replacing men in positions of authority.
Artists, generally, have had the good sense to stay away from wars. I did not have to enlist. If called up by the draft, I would have been exempted. Questioned whether I had ever been confined in a mental institution, I lied that I had not. I was not ready to confess. I had to be in that War. How many poets and painters have there been who did pass through Hell, not some imaginary Hell, but the real Hell of war and Holocaust? Not many, and fewer ever survive. Those who do may therefore have a special obsession – to bear witness". They can never escape from what they witnessed or rest describing what they saw, indescribable as it is.
The real horrors of war cannot be imagined and cannot be described. "Hell"? - a fine poetic metaphor, but beyond all description, comprehension and belief. And so, generation after generation parade off into war not ever knowing what they parade into - a mindless slaughter and a foul, stinking, bloody mess. All the descriptions, all the pictorials, all the warning signs prove inadequate, even meaningless. War becomes transformed into a spectacle. Why then go on with this need to "bear witness"? Having seen, there remains the obsession to confess of having witnessed a terrible secret: the horrendous but seductive underbelly of man. Having confessed, the witness leaves behind the markers and signs of his testimony.
But you cannot ever comprehend, especially the Holocaust, except, perhaps, as some terrifying nightmare from which, surely, we may all awake some morning. But calling the Holocaust a "nightmare" won't do, as well as to dismiss the Holocaust as "inhuman". The ultimate horror of the Holocaust may be that it was all too human. No other animal species could have done what man did. "Final solutions" will remain attractive and seductive until man has, perhaps, evolved into a new species - beyond Homo sapiens - to truly leave this part of "human nature" behind. Until then, the worst we could do is to have learned nothing.
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