Wednesday, October 23, 2013


My friend John was the first person who ever talked to me about Erich Priebke. An American World War II vet, he surprised me by saying he didn’t know what all the fuss was about. 
SS Captain Erich Priebke
This was back in the mid-‘90s when I’d first moved down to Bariloche in Patagonia, and I was just starting to find out about Priebke from the news reports about Italy’s attempts to extradite him for his role in the massacre that the Nazis had carried out in the Ardeatine Caves in Rome during World War II.
“Well,” I said, “you know, John, he’s a war criminal, a former SS leader, and, if the Italians are right, a mass murderer...”
John chuckled sardonically under his breath—something I’d learned he did when he didn’t believe a word you were saying. He reeled to his feet (we were sitting at his dining room table) and made his way to the kitchen where he kept his gin stashed out of sight of his wife, in a cubbyhole between a cupboard and the woodstove. His wife and mine were out on a walk along the lake and wouldn’t be back for a while so he wasn’t being as shy as usual about his gin. (Cheap white wine was what he favored throughout the day as his ostensible “sole drink of choice,” but the gin was what he used to keep his buzz going from morning to night). He deftly snatched the liter bottle of Gordon’s from its hiding place, poured a water glass half-full and, standing right there by the stove, he drank it down thirstily like water.
“Want another beer?” he asked, clearing his throat, his diction, as always, incredibly unslurred.
“No, I’m good for now,” I said, holding up my half-full can.
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged, adding, “Just grab one out of the fridge when you need it,” and then he meandered back to the table, sat down and poured his water tumbler full of chilled wine from a pitcher that sat on the table between us. The wine he sipped as he thought about where to go next with the conversation. That was the way conversations went with John—no rush, nice and easy. Originally from New Jersey, he hadn’t been in a hurry since 1968, when he’d negotiated a golden handshake from his executive post in Buenos Aires with the Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals firm and moved to the 200 acres of mountainside he’d bought here in Patagonia with a business partner. Back then, they’d bought it for a song from the widow of the former owner, because it was out in the wilderness where nobody wanted to live. He still owned 25 acres of it despite having lived ever since on the profits he’d made from selling off his half a couple of acres at a time, once there was electricity and a better road to get here, and the area started becoming attractive to people with a little money who wanted to get away from it all.
After a moment he chuckled quietly again, but his piercing blue, bloodshot eyes remained serious, unwavering. “Erich’s no murderer. He’s one of the nicest, most respectable guys you’d ever want to meet. I remember him from when he had his deli and butcher shop in town. Everybody liked him. And he’s been a pillar of the community, head of the German school and all that.”
“Just your everyday, good-guy storm trooper, huh?” I goaded.
“Oh hell, Dan,” he said, “he’s no more a storm trooper than I am.”
“Not strictly true, John,” I said.
“And he wasn’t any kind of Nazi leader like they’re trying to make him out to be,” he went on, ignoring and immediately forgiving my sarcasm. “He was a pipsqueak captain, an administrative one at that. He was a nobody. Whatever he did, he was just doing what he was told to do.”
“That argument hasn’t flown since the Nuremberg Trials,” I said. “And it doesn’t fly in the American Army either. I was a soldier like you. I know that you’re only obliged to follow all lawful orders. Somebody tells me to shoot a hog-tied civilian in the back of the head, that’s not an order, it’s a moral choice and I have to make it. I can opt to refuse.”
Again, the low, bitter chuckle, almost under his breath. “That’s pretty naïve of you, Dan. I mean for a former big-city newsman, at least. One thing’s the theory in the rule book. Another’s being at war.” His voice quavered when he said, “I did some things I’m not very proud of when I was following Patton’s ass through Europe, and I imagine your dad did too.”
“He never talks about it,” I said.
“With good reason, I’m sure,” he responded.
“So you were with Patton?”
“Sort I say, behind him, kind of.”
“I guess everybody was sort of behind Patton,” I said. “To hear my dad tell it, Patton breezed through Europe with a convoy of tanks and then bragged about winning the war.”
This time John’s laugh was genuine. “Well, I never saw him out there directing traffic like they had George Scott doing in the movie, at least,” he snorted. He drained his glass and filled it with wine again. He sat there sipping his drink in silence, but I could almost hear him thinking. On his battered old Zenith stereo, Satchmo was singing “Jelly Roll”. There was always jazz on the stereo at John’s house. He’d shuffle back and forth for hours on end between his two loves, white wine and old-time jazz music. Sitting there at the table, the music coming from behind him, in the living room, he cupped his right ear, grinned and said, “I love this tune,” and then, in his scratchy, froggy, tenor voice, he softly sang along for a few bars: “My momma said today...when she went be a goo’ boy, I bring you a toy...’cause I’m Momma’s pride an’ joy...”
Then his face went serious again and he looked me hard in the eyes.
“There was this time, somewhere on the Rhine, I think. We’d been fighting for days. We were exhausted. But by now we were winning. It was toward the end...sometimes house to house. It was ugly. We’d lost some guys. There were guys in our outfit that wanted to burn Germany to the ground. Anyway, one day we took this factory. When we overcame the security, we had our interpreter order everybody in German to come out with their hands up. They didn’t try to run or put up a fight. They came out single file, their hands in the air. All of the sudden this sergeant of ours points his forty-five at this kid at the front—because that’s what he was, just a kid—and shoots him pointblank in the head, right here.” John put his index finger to his left temple. “I was looking right at the kid’s face when he died. It was, like, surprised, his eyes, his expression when his brains flew out the other side of his head, and then he was dead.” John was seeing it, right now, I knew, as if he were there. Tears welled up in his eyes and one spilled over and ran down his cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe it away, maybe didn’t even notice it. It dripped from his chin. He went on: “I yelled, ‘What the hell are you doing? They’re giving up! What the hell’s wrong with you?’ But he just laughed and said, ‘These dumb-assed krauts deserve to die...’”
John rubbed his eyes, shook his head, as if trying to shake the image of that day, perhaps of what followed as well. “Even now,” he said, “I see that boy’s face, and so many other boys’ faces, every night before I fall asleep.” Now he looked at me intensely. “And I’m sure Erich sees the people he killed too, Dan...and the ones he didn’t. He’s a good man. I know him well. War’s hell, Dan. That’s not a metaphor. It’s a fact. You think a mere captain had any real choice in the Nazi army? He had to take part in that massacre or be killed himself for refusing a direct order from Hitler.”
“He had a moral choice, though, John,” I insisted. “He could have chosen death over such a heinous crime.”
John chuckled low and insincerely. “Nobody chooses death in war, Dan. Your only thought is surviving till the end.”

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