When I was little, and the Walt Disney film – maybe Dumbo the Flying Elephant – had come to an end, in Norwich, N.Y. in 1945, when I was still seven, a News Reel film flickered black and white in front of me. And I watched as a bulldozer pushed a mound of white, flopping, skeletal bodies, like so much rubbish, toward the edge of a mass grave, already half full.
I do not know what happened in that moment, in my young mind. Did I learn forward, did I sit back in my too large movie theater seat? Was my mother with me, and my brother? I have no memory of those particulars. I probably knew I was looking at a place in Germany. I knew it had to do with war. The boy across the street, at eighteen, had already survived many B-17 bombing raids over that country. We, my brother and I, and other neighborhood kids, played guns, shooting at imaginary enemies. My father made us guns out of wood. He also carried a nickel-plated 38 Smith & Wesson in his back pocket. I am not sure when I began telling people he carried it in case German paratroopers landed in our town of five hundred souls, to knock out the fish line factory he ran – that Roosevelt ordered converted to the manufacturing of glider and parachute cord, for the Invasion of Europe.
No one talked much about the war in our family, at least not to us boys. No one talked about the mass graves I had seen. Much later in life, in one of her last lucid moments, when I had brought the subject up, my mother said she had not known how to talk to me about what I had witnessed in the News Reel film. She said I was disturbed for about two years. I knew I dreamed over and over about black panthers bounding up behind me in a warehouse stairwell. About a dog-cat with three legs and one stump that thumped down over the one steep step – which did not exist –into the bedroom where my brother and I slept, my bed closer to a closest whose dark interior twitched with menace.
At roughly the same time, my mother lost her youngest sister to a back street abortion, an event she herself had arranged, because decent doctors, even her own uncle, would not help. Her sister and her sister’s lover, an instructor at a famous boys’ academy, could not marry because, as the academic authority put it, there were already too many married instructors at the school. Then her father died – they said because of a broken heart. Then her reclusive mother, about whom little is known in our limited family history, except that she wore white gloves and once brought us boys small green cones of pine incense.
I associated the small after-rain toads of Maine’s dirt roads with death, when I was seven and sent off to summer camp for two months. I associated gray rainy days with death, specifically with my mother dying. Then this all went away for the next fifteen or sixteen years. Sank below the surface, as Mr. Freud might have said, if he had been there. But then, in my second year at college, I dropped everything and began reading thick red books called something like the Nuremberg Reports, information published, I suppose, from the Nuremberg Trials.
I read page after page, chapter after chapter, list after list of detailed atrocities, about torture and murder, committed against Jews and homosexuals and the handicapped and the infirm; against children and Russian prisoners of war and black French-African troops and religious leaders Protestant and Catholic, who had spoken out.
At the concentration camp Buchenwald, on a hill overlooking Weimar, the lovely city of Germany’s great humanitarian poets Goethe and Schiller, you can still see the bullet holes in the floor of a room with a drain in the center, where they executed Russian prisoners of war, who were probably sitting or kneeling.
You can add your own list to mine – of atrocities, of the inexorable, mad, heartless cruelty and mayhem practiced on people. 8,000 Polish officers – Stalin’s victims, Native Americans, 800,000 Rwandans, Armenians, Cambodians, the women of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. Over and over, without end. The Japanese army in Shanghai. Acts more sophisticated. Atomic bombs. What is the difference, I ask, between a Predator drone’s Hellfire missile and a plastic bag or a club?
All of this recedes and is forgotten because the human soul cannot endure the images for too long. My mother had me draw pictures of the still flickering black and white images in my mind. I drew page after page of naked, white, flopping bodies. The black panthers and the three-legged hyena cat-dogs gradually dimmed and faded.
The drawing helped, I suppose. But it has not been enough. And that is why, I think, the images keep coming up in my writing. Bubble up, as it were. I try to give them form, I suppose as a buffer, a layer of protection. But I have never been able to get over the idea that people can decide to torture and take the life of another person. It is that simple. It is always there. The images, close to the surface. The two men dressed in military greens, pushing a young Polish officer, who stumbles ahead of them, his hands bound behind him, still a boy inside, with a mother, a lover, a wife, a son or a daughter; he is a young man with a history and the assumption of a future. They push him toward the pit, and he sees what is inside it. A third man steps up behind and slips a wire noose over his head and wraps the other end around his wrists. He resists, cries out in horror, to his god or mother. A fourth man steps up behind him, raises an automatic pistol, the Russian version of the German Lugar. The two men holding the Polish officer’s elbows turn their heads away, to avoid the coming sound and spray. The executioner fires, catching the prisoner in mid-cry, and they throw him forward into the pit, taking advantage of the split second he is still standing. Katyn Forest, 1943. Eight thousand times.