On this, the 45th anniversary of the death of my friend Zev Weiss, it's appropriate and meaningful and remorseful to republish this story. To try to forget what cannot be forgotten.
The Jew In The Box
He sat propped up against the back wall, one of his legs twisted away from him like a puppet’s limb. His reddish and blue face was a mask scrambled and smoothed by the plastic bag over his head. One of his hands was caught in torn holes at the bottom of the bag as if he had tried to rip it off. He was asleep... and dead.
When the police arrived they found people standing quietly around the tall plexiglas case in which the dead man was found. The back door to the case was locked from the inside. The police determined that this was a suicide. In the weeks of investigations that followed, family, friends, officials could not uncover the reasons, the motives for this sad, gruesome, untimely death.
But we know, you and I. We know that an hour before Mov Weiss killed himself, he had a visitor. We know this.
We know that in 1985, Mov was one of the founders in Hamburg of a group called, “Remembrance." Its purpose was to offer further redemption, a salve for the apparently lingering guilt of German people through information and conversation. Apparently lingering guilt. The group established a small museum in the north-end of the city – modest yet unintentionally or perhaps intentionally confrontational. How could it be otherwise? We know this, you and I. The museum's exhibits consisted of photographs and descriptive texts of German-Jewish life from the past 100 years, and, of course, from the Holocaust. The Jews of Germany... they considered themselves Germans first and Jews, second and third. In the face of the Nazi terror, they proclaimed and insisted they were Germans. It was a proclamation and insistence that helped exterminate an unimaginable majority of German-Jews.
From its opening, the museum received a growing stream of visitors, some silent in their response, others animated and disturbed. And then there was the Box.
It was Mov's idea. A tall, plexiglas-enclosed closet-like booth with someone sitting inside to converse with. The sign read: "Ask Me and I Will Tell You". Mov was the first occupant of the brightly lit, transparent information chamber, not unlike a cage in a zoo. 'Here is a Jew, a healthy young specimen, an almost extinct species. He is friendly, he is intelligent, he speaks our language, he can answer your questions, he will tell you the truth about Jews, Judaism, Jewishness, Jüdin. Look at him, study him, talk to him, remember him.'
Eight hours a day, six days a week, Sunday through Friday, Mov put himself on display as a willing correspondent. In the beginning, he sat in a cane chair in the center of the enclosure, neatly dressed in suit and tie. Later, he dismissed the chair and stood or leaned against a clear wall. And he dismissed the tie, sometimes, the jacket as well. It was exhausting. He began to have difficulty sleeping. When he did, he was hammered with nightmares, a recurring nightmare that he couldn't end. On the last day of his life, he was exhausted.
Mov, the Jew in the box, was the highlight attraction of the museum. Many visitors came to see him... some stopped and stared at him, silently, then walked away. Others talked to him and even asked a few questions. Some harassed him with obscene words and gestures. But it was the children that interested him most and brought him the most satisfaction. It was the children. One asked: "Why does everyone hate the Jews?" He answered: "Because they are ignorant, because they are afraid, because they are jealous and that makes afraid?" "Jealous?" she asked. "Yes," he said. "They see a people, the Jews, persecuted, tortured, murdered and yet, the Jewish people survive, they go on, and they get better."
The little girl watched him for a moment and then asked: "Were you tortured?"
He answered: "No. But my people were, and in a way, I am, because I feel what they feel." She nodded and smiled and that was Mov's best reward for being in a cage, on display.
On this last day, he was exhausted. He was sitting on the floor of the box drinking water from a camper's cup which he kept in a corner, when the guard came to say that it was an hour until closing and there was no one else in the museum. Mov told him it was all right if he wanted to leave early and that he would lock up. Mov closed his eyes and remembered it was Friday. He was relieved that he had a day off to enjoy.
As Mov sat there, a man appeared, an old man with slicked down blonde-white hair, an old handsome man with chiseled features, an old well-dressed man wearing a raincoat. He walked to the front of the box and leaned on his umbrella. Mov didn't notice him at first. He was startled when he opened his eyes.
The old man smiled and asked: "Are you the son of Zev Weiss?"
"Yes." Mov answered.
"I knew your father. I knew him well. We worked together during the war."
"You were in the same... camp?"
"Not just one. We moved around a great deal. He was my research assistant."
Mov slowly rose to his feet. "Research... assistant?"
Mov moved slowly to the front, transparent wall of the box. "You were a prisoner in a Nazi camp and you did research?
"No, I wasn't a prisoner. I worked there. I did research and your father assisted me. I was his mentor. I met your father when he was 19. He was a brilliant medical student. When they corralled him and shipped him to a labor camp, I found him and had him assigned to me. I think I saved his life."
As the old man smiled at him again, Mov pressed his face and hands against the wall and whispered: "You're Hoeffler."
Mov began to back away: "You're one of the black Doctors, one of the beasts of..."
"No, I wasn't a doctor, I was a scientist. Your father and I worked together for nearly five years. The conditions were difficult but we managed to do some valuable work and also... some not-too valuable work."
Mov tried to speak as calmly as possible, his hands trembling: "Why are you free? Why are you walking around? Why are you still alive?"
"I met your father again after the war in Jerusalem in 1948 They sent me down there to be with the Mufti in their fight against the Zionists."
Mov struggled: "They?... who's they?"
"I was an advisor in Palestine, an information specialist. Your father was there then, he had joined a little, violent gang, the Irgun. The British captured him and turned him over to us. I had to interrogate him. He was as surprised to see me as I was him. It was a surprising reunion. He told you about this, didn't he?"
Mov had moved to the back wall and pressed his back hard against it as he tried to find the small inset handle that unlocked the door.
"I'm afraid we had to torture him a bit. He told you, didn't he?"
Mov exploded and lunged to the front wall, screaming: "Why are you afraid? That was your 'research' wasn't it?"
The old man didn't flinch: "You know, your father told me an interesting story when we talked then."
Mov closed his eyes. His hands balled into tight fists.
The old man said: "He told me that during the last months of the war when I had to leave the country, he was shipped back to Auschwitz. When the soldiers came and opened the camp, he was nearly starving and sick but obsessed with finding a newspaper, any current newspaper. He told me he desperately needed to read about what was happening outside. He told me he finally found a French soldier who had a newspaper that was only a few days old. He told me he fell to the ground and began to scour the pages for news of a world congress which he believed was meeting. He believed that everyone was in their home glued to their radios. The buses had stopped running, the elevators, everyone was listening to the congress, listening to hear it say – 'we're at the end, we've crossed the line, we're at the bottom, everything must change, this can never happen again'. Of course, he found nothing, there was no congress, people were not listening to anything, they were going about their business, salvaging their lives, trying to forget. Are you all right?"
Mov had sunk to the floor. There were tears streaming down his face. He pounded on the plexiglas with the flats of his hands.
The old man said: "He died didn't he, in '70... '72? I'm amazed he survived that long. Long enough to have a family, long enough to bring you into this world, long enough to pass on his memories. He saw everything I saw. he did everything I did." The old man took off his rain coat, draped it carefully on his arm and laid his umbrella over it.
Mov, now on his knees, stared at him: "You are a liar! You're a murderer, you're a horror-maker, you are a liar! My father was haunted by the memory of you, by what you did, by what he saw you do."
The old man said: "Your father was haunted by himself. He could never reconcile his logical thoughts with his perception of the reality around him. That was his nightmare, that was..."
Mov, now standing, stared at him: "How calm you are. How nonchalantly you speak about the horror of murder of men... and women... and children. Empty, without any feeling. How dead you are."
The old man said: "Did your father tell you what he learned from me?"
"And did you learn from him?"
"Did he tell you that Germany is poisoned, its people and its culture? They carry a plague, a toxin like a virus in every cell, in their bones, and language and music. They pass it on from generation to generation. It's been that way for 100's of years. And when the small-brained Nazi thugs grabbed Germany in the 1930's, it flourished like the black plague of the Middle Ages. Stalin was right, Germany should have been broken up into small pieces and scattered throughout Europe, never to allow the country to emerge again. Did he tell you that?"
"Did he tell you that what they did in the camps had nothing to do with religion or ideology? It had to do with the freedom of power. They were free to do it, so they did it. Did he tell you that?"
"Did he tell you that I had the freedom, the power to do what I did, so I did it? Did he tell you that?"
"Then you know that what you do here in this living museum makes no difference. The plague will rise again, and you will know it."
Mov pounded on the wall: "I'll hunt you, I'll get people together and we will hunt you. We'll drag you into the light and show you for the black beast you are."
The old man began to walk away. Then he stopped and turned toward Mov: "No, you will hunt... you. You'll haunt yourself as your father did."
He turned and walked away. Mov stared after him.
Mov was buried next to his father.
We know, you and I, that his tombstone reads:
"I am my Father's Keeper."