This Goddamned Book about Hitler
I wrote the below a couple of years ago. Today, I've solved a years-long quandary about what to do with this book and I'm sending it off to the National Holocaust Museum. May it live on there as a reminder of how easily we glorify that which deserves no glory.
This Goddamned Book about Hitler
By Susan Fekete
I have a propaganda “fan” book that is all about Adolf Hitler. I am not a fan of Hitler, but the person who first touched this book was. I’ve had this book for a very long time, and I do not know what to do about it, because now I have touched this book as well.
This book has anchored me, for decades, to a person I will never know. I come across it each time I move, which is every couple of years. It has a place, always near the top of one of the three boxes of photographs and memorabilia that live forever in a spare closet or the corner of an office somewhere in whatever house we happen to be inhabiting. These boxes are the bulk of my memory, my youth, my family and everything that ever felt like “home.” They hold pictures, ticket stubs, old Valentines. These boxes also contain harsh realities like the few report cards I never want to remember having, because the grades on them are clear evidence that I was coping with my early teenage years less well than I thought. Honestly, every time I see one particular trimester’s grades, I am shocked at myself all over again. I’m more shocked, still, by the fact that for years I espoused the belief that I’d always been an A/B student, while these black-and-white failures silently lay in wait at the bottom of a box of forgotten days.
Among my own personal losses and harsh realities rests this book, titled simply “Adolf Hitler: Pictures from the Life of Our Leader.” This book did not come to be in these boxes because of my personal attachment to it. I put it in a box because I was moving. It’s a large volume and wouldn’t fit into the box of books that I was packing. Besides, the binding on the book was disintegrating, and I felt the need to maintain its integrity, to keep the hideousness locked into one continuous volume, that its place in my life might be contained into as small as space as possible. I opened the next-nearest box and placed it inside. It turns out that the next-nearest box was a container of memories.
Of course, you want to know why I have this book and what, exactly, it is. I’ll answer those questions in reverse, as everything about this tale is convoluted. The book is propaganda that was printed by a cigarette company. It contains 133 pages of text about Hitler, with large blank rectangular “frames” into which pictures were pasted. I expect the pictures were the equivalent of trading cards, incentive to purchase of a pack of cigarettes. Each features a picture of the Fuhrer, one of his high-ranking officials, soldiers, or saluting throngs of loyalists. The photos of Hitler himself feature him in various poses – dining, walking in nature, reading a map, speaking to children. One of the strangest and most staged photos features Hitler and several other men standing near an automobile in the middle of what appears to be a large forest – and they are reading newspapers. As one does. In the middle of the forest.
The book features a foreword by Hermann Goering, Hitler’s morphine-addicted, Gestapo-creating, Air Force commander. I’d never been able to understand what it said until I married my first husband, whose father was German, and he was able to loosely translate it. I still have the sheet of graph paper, written in my former father-in-law’s hand:
“We want to thank you, my leader, but not to speak in words. We also do not want to hide our true faith in words that can be documented. Everything that is here for you is in thanks, and love and glowing trust, my leader, that you experienced today from the hundreds of thousands of eyes that lift up for you. All people, an entire nation, feels very strong and happy today. Because of you, to this entire nation you are not only our leader, you’re also the savior of this nation.”
I later showed it to a man from Germany who I knew, a well-educated aesthete from Germany. He said the translation was grammatically awkward but basically right. It’s dated September 15, 1935. The copyright on the book itself is 1936, and the publisher was Cigaretten-Bilderdienit. There’s not one blank space in the whole book; the person who owned it collected every single photograph. Every single one. 200 or so pictures. I cannot bring myself to count them all, as every page I touch feels like sacrilege.
The book came to me by way of my mother, who loved books and appreciated all things memorable. She found it at a garage sale. She was struck by it, just lying there unattended on a table, surrounded by an incomplete set of silverware, empty picture frames and Tupperware with no lids – the stuff of life. It called out to her as something that needed maintaining. She did not know why. She once told me she’d even thought about calling the police, asking them to investigate whether the person who’d lived in that inconspicuous house was a war criminal. In the end, she hadn’t. It was an estate sale, after all, and the array of items for sale indicated that someone had died. She’d let go of the idea, but she’d kept the book. Then, during one visit to see me, she’d brought it to me. I’m still not sure why. My mother was like that. She sometimes, for no reason, decided that a certain person needed to possess a certain object. As if she was a diviner and the objects were her rod, she sought people with whom to deposit her richness. I don’t know what she divined would be this book’s purpose in my life.
I can’t seem to get rid of it, and I’ve had it for at least 20 years. It has an uncanny power over me. Each time I come across it, I think about burning it, but I cannot. I think about finding a home for it, perhaps in a Holocaust museum, but I have not. I think about asking my Jewish friends what they think I should do with it, but then I am overcome by the shame of its long tenure in my possession. How do I explain this book? It’s my black arm band. It’s my POW bracelet. It’s my greatest confusion.
These days, I think more and more about the person who owned the book. Did they have small hands? What was the paste that they used to hold the pictures in place? Did they smoke all of the cigarettes they bought? Did they sometimes share a smoke with a friend? What made them laugh? Did they have a garden? Did they share this book with their children? How did they die? And when they bought the cigarettes, read the foreword, carefully placed each photograph – did they know what Himmler was doing in Dachau? The fingers that touched these pages I touch, how complicit were they? And when they finished a pack of cigarettes, did those same fingers crush the wrapper and ball it up, tossing it into the rubbish pile like so many teeth stripped of gold?
Much debate was recently had in Concord, California: A former Naval Weapons Station was being considered as a camp for immigrant “housing” – for 47,000 people. That location was ultimately nixed, but other sites are alive and well. The internment camps of our generation are being designed, even as the Supreme Court recently overturned the 1944 Korimatsu ruling, deciding that no citizen may be subjected to such treatment.
Nearly 82 years after Goebbels wrote his page, I sit in my living room with a computer on my lap. Tonight, all over our nation, fear breeds fear. One by one, the minds and hearts and futures of souls that came to our border bearing the weight of hope are stomped out by so many ICE boots – the jackboot of the 21st century. No matter how much I write, no matter how much I rail against those in power, no matter how many calls I have made to my members of Congress in the last 24 months, I feel more impotent by the day.
Would my husband understand if I disappeared into the activist frontlines? Would he go on without me and forgive me? Would he ever take me back, or would it be the ultimate betrayal, trading him for civil rights? I worry a great deal about money. We already have some debt. I cannot “afford” to take unpaid leave to stand in protest in the streets of McAllen, of Buffalo, of Concord. I cannot abandon all that I have for what I have not. I wouldn’t have any medical coverage – what if I became injured? My spouse and I work together – without me, what would become of his job? We only have one car; I wouldn’t even have a car to live in. Although he is a good man, he does not feel exactly as I do when the world goes topsy-turvy. The military did a fine job of ensuring that. Nonetheless, he is mine, and I am his, and we have made deep and meaningful promises. Could I ever abandon my one for us all?
Now every day, I wonder, several times a day: Who makes the choice to go, in person, to engage in the daily fight for our rights? Who chooses to give up all comfort, all known factors, all security, all future? Who has gone? Is showing up to lend a hand of use? Could I be of use? Who will be of use? And if I wanted to go to the frontlines . . . where are they?
Yes, there are protests. Several thousand people here, a hundred thousand there. They are impressive and showy and make great media. They are important, but lately I feel like I’m shouting into a well, and all that comes back to me is an empty echo of “We hear you. We agree. We’re working on it.”
I even spent several months as a heavy-duty player in a local activist organization, only to be ultimately disappointed by the eruption of the very kind of politicking, infighting, and mean-spirited rhetoric that I thought we were all working together against.
But where are the frontlines? I’m not condoning violence. But there is no frontline. There is no gathering of the forces. We continue to splinter, with everyone working so hard to resist that we’re accomplishing little. Newton’s second law says f=ma – meaning force is the product of mass and acceleration. We have mass, but we do not have acceleration. Frontlines mandate soldiers, and right now we are, all of us, going on about our lives. We are not all-in. We are business as usual. People are buying cigarettes and pasting pictures, and I still have this goddamned book.