Friday, December 27, 2013

A U-Boat Captain and a Jewish Assassin Discuss the Future over Coffee

The waiter brought their coffee and left. Ziggy stared into his cup and the small white ceramic jars of sugar and milk. The war wasn’t over yet and even a rundown French cafe like this one had coffee, and milk and sugar to go with it.

"I’m sure it’s all been stolen from the Americans,” said Sebastian. For a moment Ziggy wondered whether his brother had read his mind.

"I didn’t have to read your mind for that. It’s all pretty obvious,” said Sebastian.

Ziggy glared at Sebastian. Sebastian looked back exasperated. “Look, Ziggy, I’m on a job and I don’t have the time or energy to turn it on or off just to be polite.”

"On a job?”

"I’m with the Blood of Israel. We have to get Franzi out.” Sebastian leaned forward. “Let me ask you this, Ziggy. Have you thought about what’s going to happen to us now that the war is over and the Nazis are beaten?""Us as in the Loerber Brothers?” asked Ziggy.

"Sebastian gripped the table with both hands. “No goddammit! Us as in the Jews!

"Yes, we’re the ones who’ve suffered the most in this war and now we’re about to be conveniently forgotten. The West should be standing up for us, but let’s face it, they’ll be the first ones to act like the whole thing never happened. And where is that going to leave us? With nothing.”

Ziggy nodded impassively. He particularly dreaded Sebastian’s didactic discussions where the point was waiting, hidden somewhere among a minefield of polemics.

"Ziggy, the Jewish people need a homeland. The West owes it to us, for sitting on their thumbs while millions of us got butchered. But do you think they feel any obligation toward us? Hah! They’re too busy cutting cozy deals with the SS to help fight their war against the Russians. It’s not in their interest to acknowledge what we’ve been through.”

Ziggy tried hard to imagine Bedell Smith cutting a deal with the SS, but he guessed the point would be lost on Sebastian. “What does this have to do with Franzi?” he asked.

"I’m coming to that, Ziggy. My point is that they’re not going to give us our homeland out of niceness or guilt. The only way they’ll do it is if we have a dagger at their throats. And with all the dirt Franzi has on everybody, they’ll give us anything we ask for just to keep it from getting out.”

Sebastian brought the coffee cup to his lips, but once there he put it back on its saucer without tasting it. “Listen to me, Ziggy. I can’t do this alone. I’m going to need your help.”

"Have you thought about using Manni for this? He seems like a better bet than me.”

"No,” said Sebastian, with surprising vehemence. “I can’t work with Manni.”

"Not even for Franzi?”


Neither said anything for a while. They drank their coffee and looked around the room. Outside the sun was starting to get low. Ziggy hoped von Friedeburg hadn’t woken up yet.

Then Sebastian looked at Ziggy. “You think I like getting dragged back into all that Loerber crap? Believe me, I was a lot more eager to get away from it than you were. And magic? I only started doing the stuff with the dreams a couple months ago. I hate doing it, but you know something? This is war and in a war you use the weapons you have. Dreams sow terror in goyim hearts and that is priceless.”

"I take it you don’t care much for goyim,” said Ziggy.

"I don’t hate them per se, but I’m not going to pretend to be one just to save my lousy skin.”

Ziggy felt the barb strike him. “I didn’t do it to save my skin,” he shot back.

Sebastian arched an eyebrow. “Oh? So then why did you go into the Navy?”

Ziggy looked away. He thought about Luth and Cremer. He thought about poor old von Friedeburg having his fitful sleep on that bed and what Doenitz had said to him on the bridge and all the men who’d kept his secret, all dead now, except for Cremer. I’d joined to prove I could be a good German, he thought to himself, and no one could say I wasn’t. And he thought about all the photographs and all the bodies. He looked back at Sebastian and thought, at least he’ll never need to justify his sanctimoniousness.

"Sebastian, what do you want me to say? I made that choice ten years ago. You can’t change the past.”

"But don’t you see, that’s where you’re wrong,” cried Sebastian. “You can join us. Put your past behind you and be what you always were; a Jew.”

Be a Jew. Ziggy felt overwhelmed by the sheer simplicity of the idea. It felt right, the way it had echoed in his heart, sitting in temple when he was young, like waves on the ocean. It was also perfectly absurd. “Sebastian, I’m a Nazi U-Boat captain.” He pulled open the neck of his trench coat so his brother could see his Iron Cross. “Brilliants, swords and oak leaves, Sebastian. There’s no wiping that slate clean.”

Sebastian shook his head. “Come on Ziggy. You think you’re the only one who did things they’re ashamed of? Almost anyone who survived the camps did terrible things, Ziggy, things that make you look like a saint. You know what we tell them? We say, stop blaming yourself for what you had to do. Quit torturing yourself for the things that were outside your control. All that we demand is that you be a Jew among Jews.”

"In Palestine?”

"Yes, of course, it’s the only place we can ever be safe.”

Sebastian sounded so convincing that even though Ziggy knew what he was saying had to be full of holes, he couldn’t think of any arguments to the contrary. “So I take it you have a plan,” he said.

"Well yes, but it’s not completely worked out.”

"Explain what is worked out.”

"Well,” began Sebastian, “we know Himmler has set up his headquarters in a chateau a few miles outside Flensburg. The time to go in is now, while there are enough people that it’ll still be easy to confuse them. By tomorrow they may have moved on somewhere else. We’ve got a plane waiting, we could be there before midnight. We both put on SS uniforms, distract, confuse, act as decoys for each other. Get in close, grab him, get him out, like that!”

"It sounds harebrained,” said Ziggy.

"We’ve pulled off more with less.”

Ziggy nodded. It was true.

"It won’t be without problems,” said Sebastian. “Himmler’s got a guy working for him named Macher. He’s a particularly tough nut.”

"I know, I’ve met him,” said Ziggy.

Palestine. It sounded like it might be a good idea. Certainly there wouldn’t be much point in staying in Germany. He didn’t see why the Allies would be interested in rebuilding it. For all he knew, they’d let it revert to cow pasture. In Palestine, he’d be just another pioneer refugee, not a Magical Loerber Brother, not Hitler’s Jewish U-Boat ace. He could live with that.

Wipe the slate clean. Everything that had happened in the last ten years didn’t happen at all or it happened to someone else, someone who lies dead on the bottom of the Atlantic in his iron coffin, or something very nearly like it.

They talked about it some more, the logistics, the weapons they had, the size of Himmler’s force. Sebastian seemed to have a lot of backup manpower at his disposal. Some were already in the area disguised as Wehrmacht, others as British.

He watched Sebastian holding the coffee cup to his lips as he spoke. The sophistication he exuded was so natural, Ziggy could hardly reconcile it with the fumbling affectations which had defined his memory of him. But then, we’ve all become something else, made by the times and circumstances we intersected with. Even the ships I sank, the ones I watched burn and break up, and making myself stand there on the bridge listening to the cries for help which I could not render, knowing myself at my most cruel and predatory, none of it will matter once it’s put behind me. A memory is inherently false, frozen in time, yet endlessly buffeted by shifting context.

"If we’re going to do it, we need to get going now,” Sebastian said quietly.

"Right,” said Ziggy. His throat felt constricted. He pushed the chair back and got to his feet, suddenly feeling like he was slipping off a trapeze. “I have to go back now.”

Sebastian looked at him, but didn’t say anything.

Thanks for saving my life,” said Ziggy and quickly went out the door.
(Excerpt from Germania, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, now also available on Kindle here).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Korean War POW Who Never Came Home

Here is an article I just did for The New Yorker about Corporal John Roedel Dunn, a GI who got captured by the Chinese during the Korean War and for reasons no one knows, decided to defect after bravely standing up to his captors for more than two years. If he'd only held on for another couple of weeks, he would have been a war hero. But whatever he did, he considered unforgiveable and instead he became one of the despised turncoats and even though the others all eventually were allowed to return to the U.S., he was never heard from again. Until now. Read the full story here.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Himmler's Astrologer Proclaims Him the New Fuhrer

Franzi followed the adjutant through the padded door to the inner office. It was a far different scene from his earlier visit. Himmler was on the couch, his spectacles lying on the table, shirt unbuttoned and his undershirt pulled up above his chest, revealing the pasty white stomach which was already starting to spasm obscenely.

“Oh, Professor Loerber,” he groaned. “Something terrible has happened.”

Franzi looked around at the others, who seemed frozen in a kind of alert helplessness and wondered if the supreme moment had arrived. “Is the Fuhrer ... dead?” he asked.

Painfully, Himmler shook his head. “No, worse!” he answered. “He’s found out about my negotiations with Eisenhower and now he’s removed me from all my posts! I’m no longer Reichsfuhrer SS. I’m not even in the Party anymore.” He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Oh, God, I feel just terrible. I should never have listened to Schellenberg!” Himmler buried his head in his hands and began to weep.

Franzi looked at the generals, the adjutants and aides de camp. With their eyes, they all seemed to implore him; Do something.”


“Reichsfuhrer,” Franzi began, “When you and everyone else in this room swore their oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, it was to a man who was the living embodiment of Germany. Well, he is no longer that man. What is happening in Berlin right now is merely the natural course of things, which each of us must embrace. Nothing lasts forever, change is constant. The old is always replaced by the new. The wheels of destiny are in perpetual motion. You can throw yourself in front of them, but you can’t stop them. Regrettably, the Fuhrer let himself believe otherwise. Had he possessed the grace to accept his destiny, things might not have become such a terrible mess. You did the right thing, Reichsfuhrer, and in a few hours all this unpleasantness with the Fuhrer will be over and you’ll be free to lead Europe into a bright day.”

“But he has given my post to Gauleiter Hanke,” moaned Himmler. “I’ve been demoted. This has never happened to me in my life! And now Grand Admiral Doenitz is coming to arrest me!”

For a moment Franzi felt thrown off. Then one of the adjutants handed him a piece of paper. It was a radiogram from Naval Headquarters, Ploen, tersely informing Himmler that, on instructions of the Fuhrer, Doenitz was on his way there.

“He just met with me this morning. Why else would he be coming back here?”

Franzi gave a shrill laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding, Reichsfuhrer! That little pipsqueak? He’s more scared of you than you are of him. He’s coming back here only because he’s been ordered to. All you have to do is tell him that it’s all enemy propaganda. You think he won’t accept it? Of course he will! He doesn’t need to get into a fight with you. He’s got enough problems as it is. And the Fuhrer no longer has the power to enforce anything. You need to let the Grand Admiral know who’s boss and let the rest take care of itself.

“Honestly Reichsfuhrer, looking around me here, I don’t see anybody leaving you to serve Gauleiter Hanke. Correct me if I’m wrong, gentlemen.” Franzi looked at the shocked faces of the generals and colonels, giving them his very best, drip-dry, Gustav Loerber smile and noted with great satisfaction how positively they all responded.

He turned back to Himmler. “Now whether the Fuhrer knows it or not, he’s already dead. Reichsfuhrer, you need to calm down and accept that your moment of destiny has come and it’s right now. Not tomorrow, not in an hour. Now!”

Franzi faced the others and in his most commanding voice declared, “Gentlemen, I present to you our new Fuhrer, Heinrich Himmler!” Turning back to Himmler, he snapped his right arm into a stiff salute and shouted, “Heil Himmler!”

There was stunned silence in the room as the others looked to Himmler to offer some qualification, to chastise the strange young man for his brashness. So what if he was a prophet? He was still only a junior officer. It wasn’t his place.

But Himmler only smiled.

“Heil Himmler!” shouted Franzi again. “Heil Himmler!”

They joined him on the third chant. “Heil Himmler!”

Himmler stood up from the couch. His shirt seemed to have buttoned itself and his thick-lensed spectacles were back on his nose. When he spoke, he was as calm and confident as Franzi had ever seen him.

“Gentlemen, we have a new millennium opening before us. The cosmos requires that we seize this moment. We all have our jobs to do. Let’s get to work.”

Grand Admiral Doenitz arrived soon after that, and was gone five minutes later, apparently satisfied with whatever explanation Himmler had offered him. That seemed to take care of that, everyone said and began settling into a celebratory evening, toasting the new Fuhrer of the German Reich and the man destined to lead Europe.
(Excerpt from Germania, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, now also available on Kindle here).