(Copyright 1995 The Blacklisted Journalist)


Shoes of Jews incinerated by the Germans. How many pairs? Does it matter?
(photo courtesy the Holocaust Museum)

Does it make any difference whether the Germans slaughtered 6 million Jews or 5 million?

I'm going to take this opportunity to introduce you to this screwball friend of mine who thinks it does. In fact, he thinks it makes a big difference. I realize I shouldn't have to find any significance in the fact that this guy, who says he went to Rutgers with me in the 1940s, is an African-American. I give you that information so you can decide for yourself if you think his blackness has anything at all to do with ideas of his which I find absurd or even hilarious. How we can remain friends after so much disagreement defies the two of us, but the more we bicker, the closer we seem to get, even though be both know we can't stand each other. Well, that's not entirely true, either.

The main thing that bores me out of my mind about this guy is that he considers Leon Trotsky the living end. In fact, it is in Trotsky 's honor that, for the purpose of telling you this story, I will call this former college classmate of mine Leon. He is maybe the whitest black man I've ever met. A multi-linguist, he believes his roots to be more in Europe than in Africa. He also keeps quoting facts, figures and authorities in a fast and loose way which makes me think that if I checked up on his numbers, I'd catch him sloppily off base. Once, he gave me erroneous information about the Rutgers Homecoming Day and I ordered tickets for the wrong football game. But, like I say, as much fault as I find with Leon, I am also burdened with an affection for both him and his bumbling, a type of deficit I think the two of us share, because we are both the same age. It's not that I find him good company so much as all his flaws makes me feel superior. I also find him amusing. Such a learned man saying such dumb things! It's only when he starts in about socialism and Trotsky that he starts putting me to sleep. Still, I keep staying in touch with him. Besides, I am as lonely as Leon is.

When I expressed amazement that the difference between 5 and 6 million murders should make a difference in the long run, Leon started to quibble, citing as his authority one Raoul Hilberg, eminent Holocaust historian, who put the number of Jewish men, women and children systematically massacred by the Germans at 5.1 million, 900,000 short of the 6 million which my black Trotskyite friend accuses world Jewry of having exaggerated into a "generally accepted figure."

Leon, who recently retired from teaching French, German, Spanish and maybe Italian in the special education department of the New York City school system, also invoked the writings of acclaimed philosopher Hannah Arendt, who, according to Leon, put the figure at "somewhere between" 4.5 million and 6 million.

"Meaning that it wasn't as low as 4.5 million," he added with the triumph of a man who has succeeded in splitting a hair, "but it also wasn't as high as 6 million. And she's a brilliant intellectual woman and a Jew herself. In fact, a German Jew!"

I wondered why Leon stressed Hannah Arendt's German Jewish ancestry. Besides, I always thought she was born in Austria. Why should the place of Hannah Arendt's nativity have mattered? She could have been born on the South Pole and still the Germans would have thrown her into the ovens. Did the fact of her German

Leon's stories
about Trotsky and Socialism
bore me to snoredom

 birth, if true, add any weight to Leon's argument? This is why Leon's way of thinking amuses me. Anyway, didn't Arendt come under attack by the Jewish community for also pooh-poohing the Israeli prosecution of mass murderer Adolph Eichmann, whom she described as a "banality?"

As I've already complained, Leon often bores me to snoredom carrying on about Trotsky and Socialism and I fear he shares too much of the opinionated rigidity of those leftist associates of his who despise America while praising Libya's Col. Moammar el-Qaddafi as a nice guy. I imagine Leon's thinking is similar to that of a nitpicking bureaucrat ready to bust you for writing your first name before your last name when you should have written your last name first. Rules are rules! Would he rationalize that those who carried out the genocide were "just following orders?" Somehow, Leon makes me happy that the Trotskyites never took over the world.

Growing up with Hitler, I was traumatized by the knowledge that my cousins were being sent to their deaths for no crime other than their having been born Jews. I also endured the horror of imagining myself in my cousins' place. Today, I know I should have it in my heart to forgive the Germans as a nation, but I've as yet been unable to. I would imagine the blacks feel the same way about the whites as a race. How much of black thinking does a white black man like Leon represent? Was he expressing a new form of Holocaust denial?

"To the extent that members of oppressed minority groups exaggerate their oppression, they keep the oppression alive," he insisted. "To the extent that blacks exaggerate the existence of white racism, they keep white racism alive. They pour oil on the fire. And to the extent that Jews exaggerate the existence of anti-semitism, the horrors of anti-semitism in the past, they keep anti-semitism alive."

On this point, Leon became passionate, excited, even messianic. He said he wanted to get on a platform and tell this to the whole world. He's always looking for an audience. Usually Leon puts me to sleep, but now he was piquing my interest. When I asked if the fact that the Germans killed 5 million Jews instead of 6 million mitigates their inhumanity, their barbarism and their savagery, he said yes.

"It's less of a brutality, less of a monstrosity, yes!" he insisted. "Isn't it? Don't you think it is?"

"No!" I answered.

"Oh, come on, now!" he needled. "Come on! If one bombing raid killed 10,000 people and another bombing raid killed 100,000---"

"I don't see the difference between 5 million and 6 million myself," I interrupted him.

"The difference is a whole million," he shot back. "A million people is a large number of people. How many Jews were there? At the time of World War II, there were 18 million Jews in the world. That's one-eighteenth of the population, one million people."

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the estimated Diaspora numbered under 17 million. Or doesn't Leon believe Jewish sources unless, like Hannah Arendt, they're German. "To tell you the truth," I said, "I don't see the difference between 6 million and one."

"Well, I do," he replied. "And you do, too. I think you're just being argumentative. How can you not see the difference between 6 million and one?"

To me, this sure sounded like "incremental" Holocaust denial, but it's hard to argue with Leon, who has a booming voice that can shout down a locomotive. So, here I am in a conversation with Leon about the Holocaust, and he's accusing me of being argumentative? To me, Leon was not so much arguing as bullying. Ah, but then Leon and I are an odd couple, aren't we". Somebody could write a play about the two of us. Would it be worth while for me to try? Leon and I became friendly when he approached me at our Rutgers 40th class reunion in 1990. Since then, our clashing points of view have kept us arguing constantly. To me, Leon represents the stale thinking of old-time leftists who have aged into fossilized fascists. I certainly don't remember Leon as having been a flaming Trotskyite as a Rutgers undergraduate. In fact, I don't remember Leon at Rutgers at all. He says he was my classmate.

We go bowling sometimes. He sings in a choir, which gave a Carnegie Hall Bach recital I once nearly attended. The problem was that Leon had gotten me balcony seats after I had warned him that the woman I was bringing had a fear of heights. The woman and I had hardly made it up past the mezzanine when she started feeling nauseated. We went to a movie instead. It's become obvious that Leon's beliefs, tastes and politics are too creaky and too outdated for me. Still, as long as he wants to stay in touch, we remain friendly. We talk on the phone and even discuss getting together again, except something always seems to get in the way. On those rare occasions when we do get together, it's usually out of an obligation to tolerance shared by the both of us. Leon says he feels sorry for me because I have so few friends and I feel sorry for Leon because he has so few friends. One reason might be that, until his retirement, he was so hard to get hold of. He was almost never home, except to go to sleep and to wake up. He also refuses to have an answering machine because he says all he ever gets on it are hate messages. I can believe it.

As I say, although he's obviously a pain in the ass, I've developed an affection for Leon. To me, he's a character in this novel called "My Life," in which I happen to be the leading character. I've learned that I can't take Leon anywhere, except sometimes it's fun to be embarrassed by him. I went to a Rutgers-related reunion without him for the first time in three years the other day and, to tell the truth, I really missed him.

Discussing the Holocaust, I told him:

"I just don't believe in that kind of hate."

"Well, I don't, either," Leon quickly replied. "But I think that to exaggerate the extent to which you were discriminated against or the extent to which you were oppressed is to some extent a hateful act itself. It's counter-hate. And it helps keep the whole problem alive."

Leon always garnishes his arguments with a sprig of the truth to try to make them more palatable. For his part, Leon quoted a story called "The Revenge," by an obscure German-Jewish writer, a story which Leon said he reads to his German classes and which concludes that there is no revenge.

"Israel can't go to war against Germany," Leon said, "and the blacks in the world can't declare a war against all the whites. La guerre est finie! Give it up! These things that happened were horrible, but to what extent were the blacks themselves responsible for the incursions into Africa, the slave trade, slavery itself and black oppression? To what extent did the Jews in Europe bring about their own downfall? Learn from history! Don't exaggerate the extent to which you were oppressed! Don't minimize it, either. Don't exaggerate it either way. Don't leave out unpleasant facts, but don't put in unpleasant so-called facts or unpleasant rumors. Accuracy! That's the first rule of journalism! You don't help things by exaggerating. 'Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.' Tell the truth! Don't pretty it up! But don't ugly it up, either! Let the truth speak for itself!"

Leon said he sees a kind of McCarthyism in today's black-Jewish relationship. He said people keep attacking people for what they might have done or said in the past, even though they might have long since changed the way they talked, felt or thought. Leon also praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as a violin virtuoso and insisted that Farrakhan was offering an olive branch to the Jewish community by at long last including a Mendelssohn work in his repertoire. Leon pointed out that Mendelssohn was a Jewish composer previously shunned by Farrakhan.

"Everybody in the world has prejudice," Leon said. "You can't escape it. I have it and you have it. Everybody who has ever lived has had a prejudice of some sort. The world is too full of it. It gets into your unconscious and at some level you believe in it. And every once in a while, your belief comes out."

That was another argument I found decorated by a garnish of truth. "Every individual in the world has prejudice," he said. "You can work to eradicate it or mitigate it but I don't know if you can ever completely get rid of it."

I agreed with Leon on that point, but when he started to quote Trotsky again I began to yawn and said goodbye.  ##



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