Roger Cohen: The Jewish-American POWS Who Were Sent to Concentration Camps
Roger Cohen, in the NYT Mag (2-27-05):
Methodical by nature, disciplined in what he eats, William J. Shapiro is a measured man. He keeps his affairs ordered, his body trim. His airy house, built upon retirement from a career as an obstetrician, is set beside a Florida golf course, and every now and again a ball comes through a screen. But there are few other disturbances. He and his wife, Betty, live in one of the gated communities that fan out across the flatness of Florida. The streets are quiet and secure. In the garages, electric golf carts flank sports utility vehicles with global positioning systems.
The old strive to stay active. At dawn and at dusk, when the heat is not overwhelming, pale figures may be seen trundling in their golf carts through the streets bordered by lawns of prickly Bermuda grass and hibiscus trees. The journey to this air-conditioned existence beneath the palms and beside the fairways has been long: from the tenements of New York to these plush bungalows, from chicken soup to seared salmon with arugula, from the struggle to make it to the difficulty of spending it. Here, at last, beneath a cloudless sky, all is in order.
But for the last few years, Shapiro, 79, has been having nightmares. By now, they are predictable enough. He is running, trapped, having orders barked at him. When he awakens, his wife asks him, ''Are the Nazis still chasing you?'' They try to laugh about it. A long time has passed, after all. But for much of that time, the memory was repressed. Dr. Shapiro did not want to think about the experiences of Private Shapiro of the 28th Infantry Division. He did not want to tell the story, because to tell it, he would have to relive it.
He was an American G.I. who was captured by the Germans and had a bad break, but that was not a big deal, or so he told himself, and so he told his children when they asked, which they stopped doing after a while because they knew the questions would be met with evasion or silence. To get on with life meant to move forward. That was what he did at war's end. It was possible to push a season in hell so far back it seemed not to have existed. It was possible to forget the name of a soldier found dead beside you one morning. But then a car door slams and it sounds like a rifle shot and one knee is already on the ground, legs moving by instinct. Insects flattened on a windshield summon images of huddled bodies, each with a bullet through the head, scattered on a road to nowhere in 1945. His skull throbs. The bitter season's harvest is perennial. It returns now and Shapiro tries, but fails, to stifle a sob.
''There were fights, arguments over food, we were screaming at one another, reduced to animals,'' he says, struggling for composure. ''The Nazis made us slaves. You had no pride, couldn't even feel for another person. You could not be moral. The buddy system, all that broke down. . . . ''
Shapiro sees the G.I.'s, 350 of them, selected by the Germans for extermination because they were Jews, or looked like Jews, or were deemed ''troublemakers'' or were just grabbed at random because the Nazis needed slave labor late in a lost war, and European Jews were already dead by the millions and those not yet slaughtered were too weak to work; he sees the Americans, in a place they could not comprehend, an ephemeral little hell for which they had no preparation or instruction, a Nazi concentration camp at Berga, in the east of Germany, too small to appear on most World War II maps; sees the bedraggled men, privates in their late teens or early 20's, fighting over crumbs, chewing pieces of wood or charcoal to try to stanch diarrhea, eating snow, coughing blood from throats lacerated by rock shards in the mines where they labored, slipping away in the night without a word. People who die of hunger and thirst die in silence. Either you strangle that memory or it strangles you. The shame of survival is sometimes too much to bear.
comments powered by Disqus
- Nelson Mandela Dead: Icon of Anti-Apartheid Movement Dies at 95
- George H.W. Bush Given Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation Award
- Bruce Springsteen's 'Born To Run' manuscript could fetch $100,000 at NY auction
- Hospital Donates Records of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to JFK Library
- Australia’s Eureka Flag Finds a New Patch