What Happens When the Last Nazi Is Gone?

We are witnessing the Nazi hunters' swan song. But what will we Jews do to fill the vacuum when there are no more Nazis?

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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Convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk is brought to a courtroom in Munich, February 22, 2011.
Convicted Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk is brought to a courtroom in Munich, February 22, 2011.Credit: Reuters
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

I can picture them. They're sitting in their offices grateful for another day in the most placid job on earth. There was a time when there was still action there, but over the past decade, things at the office of the U.S. Justice Department's Nazi hunting team have gotten pretty quiet. After their coffee, the staff members have their morning yawn, then pull themselves away to have a look at their friends' pet pictures on Facebook, when all of a sudden: Trouble. It’s the startling ring of the phone. They've found another Nazi, someone on the other end of the line is saying. His name is Michael Karkoc. He's in Minnesota, and he's 94 years old. He's some kind of Ukrainian who burned villages to the ground and we need to hurry before he dies.

This looks like the Nazi hunters' swan song, maybe even the closing stanza. If it's not Michael Karkoc, it will be some other Eastern European with an exceptional genetic history of longevity. One way or another, however, nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, it can be assumed that the last of the Nazis don't have much longer in this world, leaving us with cheap imitations and a world of blurred definitions in which the foreign accent of those representing pure evil is no longer clear.

But just before the show is over and the millions of pieces of testimony with all their – and our – nightmares are packed up, I have a few disturbing questions.

Then and now

The neighbor of that Nazi in Minnesota told a newspaper he had seen Karkoc on a ladder in his garden a few days ago, as if he was trying to hint that if he is capable of climbing a ladder at his age, he is not some sick elderly man whose crimes can be overlooked. Within him there flickers the same spark of corrupted humanity, a kernel of the personality that still contains the events of the past.

In the course of the tortuous legal proceedings against convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk, there were those who wondered about the problematic aesthetics involved in putting an old sickly man on trial. It doesn't look good, they said, for the victims and the victimizers to switch roles. But the bigger question is not just one of appearances. The question is whether this is really the same man. Is that man from Minnesota really the guy who burned villages with youthful zeal 70 years ago? I'm not talking here about legal identification but rather about his emotional makeup. Are his memories from his days as a bitter enemy still part of his current personality?

It bothers me because I'm not sure that even I can identify in myself the person I was 20 years ago, when I was 22. I don't really understand who that girl was who wouldn't miss an episode of "Beverly Hills 90210" and who thought it was okay to eat corn and tuna fish and ketchup together. In other words, if other than our names and our bodies, there is no direct connection between who we were and who we've become today, are we really still the same people? Jurists will summon up the concept of the statute of limitations in response, but what would psychologists and ethicists say?

Holocaust henchmen's new face

Before anyone gets mad at me and says that failure to hunt down the last Nazi is Holocaust denial of sorts, I wish to say in my own defense that I'm not convinced that the public legal proceedings of recent years have done much to honor the memory of the Holocaust. Even if in the process, historians managed to get a few more first-hand accounts, the bigger picture has faded out.

For the past two decades already, those documenting the Holocaust have been engaged in a race against time to collect the testimonies of as many survivors as possible in the knowledge that within a short time, all we will have left are photos and the words of the survivors. The feeling is that with all due respect to student trips to Poland, it is the personification of the Holocaust, the unmediated contact with the stories of those that were there then, that will remain in our consciousness. But what's right when it comes to the victims doesn’t really work with regard to the Nazi henchmen.

When you try to pin a crime like the Holocaust on a private individual, instead of highlighting the person's evil it gets reduced in size. With the passage of time, the effect of the crime becomes almost abstract. Somewhat like God to the rationalist, it's almost impossible to speak about the Holocaust without turning the events of the Holocaust into hackneyed images, and the memories into clichés. The attempt to pin the Holocaust on an elderly former duty officer only diminishes the horror of the event.

What's next?

And a final passing thought. What will we do when there are no more Nazis? How will we deal with the vacuum that is created? It has already been 68 years that we have wrapped ourselves in the unambiguousness of the Holocaust, a time when the bad guys were bad and the good guys were ... well, us. Will something of that comfortable dichotomy vanish the moment the last Nazi dies? And even more so, now, after the recent presidential elections in Iran made it clear that we can't rely on the Iranians to fulfill that aggressive anti-Semitic role with the same skill.

Hollywood, too, has been faced with the problem. In the 1970s the bad guys were always Arabs with mustaches, communists with Russian accents or Asian murderers. But then along came political correctness and ruined everything. Ethnic profiling became unacceptable. As luck would have it though, there is still the image of the Nazi, to whom these new rules don't apply and who can still be the paradigm of evil. They remain one-size-fits-all bad guys. Just ask Steven Spielberg or Roberto Benigni, director of "Life is Beautiful." But then in the late 1990s, with the rise of post-modernism and the new narrative, it appeared that the movie industry did not feel comfortable going head-to-head against the bad guys, even if they were Nazis, because who knows, maybe they too had a troubled childhood. Hollywood didn’t give up though. In an effort to give viewers a healthy catharsis of revenge of the kind that you can enjoy without guilt feelings, the movie industry recruited bloodthirsty aliens, because, as everyone knows, aliens don’t have a lobbying organization in Washington or connections at the Anti-Defamation League.

It looks like we, like Hollywood, will have to find an alternative. We'll place a want ad: "Jews seeking the ultimate bad guy. Job requirements: Murderous anti-Semitic hatred." We'll hold auditions. Maybe we can even put Prime Minister Netanyahu in charge of casting.

Or at least we should take advantage of the situation forced upon us to take leave of the Holocaust as the only departure point from which we view reality. Like a toddler for whom the time has come to give up his blankie, we will decide, as the first stage in the separation process, to leave the Holocaust at home. Then we will limit use of the Holocaust to nighttime hours. And who knows? Maybe one day, even when it's hard for us and we're sad, we'll manage to overcome that initial natural impulse to ask the Holocaust to stand next to us and to hold our hand.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at @veredkl

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