Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Reader flashback: Swiss Gold

     On Sunday I posted a column from the late 1990s that had been spiked by the Sun-Times and rescued by the Reader, which happened on several occasions back then. Another was this one — newspaper journalism has a certain Kabuki quality, and I think the following was just too personal, too forceful for the Sun-Times' audience, but fit right into the Reader's looser vibe.  It originally ran Dec. 25, 1997. 

     The tomato soup was delightful. The quail, neither greasy nor dry. Though I preferred the white wine served with the appetizer to the following red--which seemed a bit casky--I wasn't about to mention this to my host, the ambassador.
     If this sounds like something out of a Henry James novel, well, it felt pretty weird to me too. I was squirming in my elegant chair in a private dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel this past September, snared in a roundup of Jewish journalists and delivered before Alfred Defago, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, so he could tell us how sorry his government is for having played banker to the Nazis during World War II. How much it regrets that for half a century afterward Swiss banks kept the money from thousands of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims, their heirs turned away empty-handed with bureaucratic dodges: I'm sorry, but you'll need to get an official death certificate from the Nazis confirming that they shot your parents in the head and dumped their bodies in a slit trench in some forest in Poland....
     Not that Defago used these words. Everything the ambassador said was correctness itself. Polished. Poised. His words would look good engraved on a coin. And his timing was perfect--a little late in the grand scheme of things, but right in keeping with 1997. This was the year for making nice with history. The Brits apologized for the Irish potato famine. The squeaky-clean Norwegians apologized to the Laplanders for past indiscretions. Even the French, who never apologize for anything, were lining up to say how sorry they were about their various lapses, misdeeds, and crimes during World War II.
     Jews were the favorite object of public contrition but not the only one. President Clinton gathered the few surviving victims of the infamous Tuskegee experiment and invited them over to the White House so he could look them in the eye and repent from the bottom of his heart. Clinton's good at that--from the sincere look of dolor slapped all over his mug, you'd think he was there at the clinic, pretending to treat syphilis and lying to patients. He even trembled on the brink of issuing a mea culpa for slavery but then pulled back, perhaps because there are no ex-slaves still around to summon for a photo op....

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  1. There is an interesting book that touches on the subject of Jewish slave labor in Nazi occupied Europe, Oskar Schindler, by David Crowe. In addition to Schindler's enamelware factory, the book goes into details of the operations of other factories in Kraków. German workers were paid full salaries. Polish laborers were paid at a subsistence level, but their families could survive. The Jewish slave workers cost half of what a Pole was paid, all their salary going to the Nazi party. All things being equal, utilizing skilled Jewish workers meant more profit. There were concerted efforts by factory owners, to protect Jewish workers from Nazi excesses. As World War II became a lost cause to the Nazis, they accelerated their killing of all Jews. The book's really gripping narrative concerns moving the Jewish factory workers to Czechoslovakia, and events that occurred there until the end of the war.
    The 186 Stairs of Death were associated with the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria, set up as a sadistic method for killing Jews. The quarried stones were used in paving the streets of Vienna. Does anyone have details on how this tied into BMW's operations?

    1. I'm not being glib when I say I don't think I could have endured the torture of the Stairs of Death, and would have chosen to do something to precipitate a quick expiration (i.e. try to run away and hope to get shot).


    2. I'm in agreement with you Sandy. Also,can't understand how anyone in those circumstances or their younger relatives & descendants could have remained religious.

  2. A thought provoking article.

  3. Somehow the column fits perfectly into the current political milieu.


  4. I wouldn't have wanted to be in the ambassador's shoes for any amount of money; a no-win position to have to "apologize" for the unforgivable. Powerful and ever-pertinent article.


  5. To me the weirdest connection between the Nazis and contemporary life was the Volkswagen Beetle. It had been developed by the Nazis before the war as affordable transportation for the masses. Just type "Hitler Volkswagen Beetle" into Google Images for some truly surreal images of Hitler and other Nazi officials examining a prototype Beetle that looks exactly like the ones that swarmed American streets decades later.

    Bitter Scribe


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