by Richard H. Curtiss
„The Holocaust museum is doing wonderful work. But I’d hate to think that the one thing the Holocaust Museum doesn’t talk about is genocide when it’s done by Jews.“—John Sack, author of An Eye for an Eye, Feb. 13, 1997.
Listening to American magazine writer John Sack speak is like reading the Thousand and One Nights. Each improbable adventure seems to lead to another even more astonishing tale. But the Arabian Nights is a work of fiction, set in the Baghdad of the Abbasid Caliphate. John Sack’s tales are true, and they take place in such varied settings as California, Poland, Germany and Israel over the past half century. And while editions of the Arabian Nights are available through any bookstore, John Sack’s book, An Eye for an Eye, published in 1993, is out of print less than four years after it was issued.
The 66-year-old author, who is Jewish and who presently lives in Idaho, was invited by Michael Berenbaum, until recently director of the research institute of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, to tell an invitational audience his story of how some 60,000 to 80,000 German prisoners died at the hands of a largely Jewish guard force in the aftermath of the European Holocaust in World War II. Just before the talk was to be held, however, it was canceled by the museum’s new director, Dr. Walter Reich. When Sack ascertained that he had been deliberately „disinvited“ by the new head of the Holocaust Museum, he spent $300 to rent a room to deliver the same talk February 13, 1997, to journalists at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
Sack’s misadventure with censorship by the publicly funded US Holocaust Museum began in California in April 1976 when he met the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Lola Potak. The daughter told him how in Nazi concentration camps her mother had lost her mother and her sister, and had had a brother hanged by the Nazis in January 1945.
Subsequently Lola Potak, whose weight was down to 65 pounds, escaped when prisoners were being marched from one camp to another to avoid the oncoming Allied armies in the winter of 1944-1945. After the area in which she was hiding was overrun by the Russian army, she volunteered to serve the Polish secret police against her German oppressors. She ended up as the commander of a camp for German prisoners operated at Gliwice [Gleiwitz], Poland. It was one of 1,255 such camps established as Soviet forces swept across Europe, Sack learned. He spent the next two-and-a-half years interviewing Lola and other former guards to whom she introduced him about their experiences at Russian and Polish-operated camps. [See: „Book Detailing Jewish Crimes Against Germans Banned,“ Jan.-Feb. 1995 Journal, p. 28.]
The result was an article in California magazine entitled „Lola’s Revenge and Lola’s Redemption.“ In it Sack wrote about how Lola, who at first could think of nothing but revenge, one day found herself challenging a guard under her command who was beating a German prisoner. „If you despise them, why do you want to be like them?“ she asked. From then on she told the guards to treat the German prisoners like human beings. „Maybe people will learn that to hate your neighbors may not destroy them, but it will surely destroy you,“ Lola said.
Sack’s article won an award as the best magazine article of the year. As a result, he signed up Lola to collaborate with him on a book about the camps for German prisoners operated by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. After he approached a number of publishing firms, the idea was accepted by Henry Holt publishers.
To Sack’s chagrin, however, Lola Potak and other former guards she had introduced him to then refused permission to use their stories. When he pointed out that they had a contract, they threatened „to sue me, to kill me, and to call the Israeli mafia,“ Sack said.
So Sack, who speaks and reads fluent German, gave up the idea of working with his original collaborators, but not of writing the book. In April 1989 he visited the German Federal Archives in a castle above the Rhine River. There he found five statements by Germans who were incarcerated in Lola’s prison. He looked up the five former prisoners, found three other guards who had served under Lola, and visited the prison.
From there his research took him to various countries where he talked to other witnesses and read thousands of documents. His researches confirmed that Lola had been the camp commandant, and that she had stopped the violence against the prisoners.
„So Lola was telling the truth, but she wasn’t telling the whole truth,“ Sack told his Press Club audience. He explained that he learned that „among the prisoners in Lola’s camp were 20 captured German soldiers. But there also were 1,000 civilians.
„They were tortured. One was a 14-year-old boy arrested for wearing a Boy Scout uniform. They poured gasoline on the Boy Scout’s hair and set it on fire. He went insane. The Germans who died in the camp were buried in a mass grave at a Catholic cemetery.
„The truth was that the Germans in Lola’s prison were worse off than Lola had been at Auschwitz.“ Sack continued. „For example, the guards at Auschwitz were not allowed to rape the prisoners. In Lola’s prison they did.“
Sack said the prisons were operated by the Polish Office of State Security. The Germans called it the „Polish Gestapo.“ Of the security office directors, „almost all were Jews, and three-quarters of the officers were Jews and one-quarter were Catholics,“ Sack said. Sack then went looking for the camp officers, finding some in Israel, and one in New Jersey.
He confirmed that between 60,000 and 80,000 Germans died in the camps. Of 50 babies in one camp, 48 died. „From Gliwice we moved westward to Breslau and from there to Prague,“ another former guard told him, describing how Germans were interned behind advancing Allied forces. „More Germans died in the camps than Germany lost in the bombing of Dresden, or than Japan lost at Hiroshima,“ Sack said. „Although the numbers of Germans who died in the camps were only one percent of those who died in the Holocaust, one German survivor said that, for the victims, it was another Holocaust.“
Sack also heard about Solomon Morel, supposedly Lola Potak’s boyfriend and the commander of another internment camp in Poland. Morel, while drunk, assembled a group of German prisoners and threatened to kill them if they did not sing the Nazi „Horst Wessel Song.“ Then, while forcing them to continue to sing, he began beating the prisoners to death with a wooden chair.
The author prepared the story of Morel for publication as a separate article. „GQ paid $15,000 and then didn’t publish it,“ Sack said. „Mother Jones didn’t call back. The New Yorker refused to look at it.“ In 1993, however, The Village Voice published the story of Solomon Morel and in the same year Basic Books published Sack’s long-delayed book, An Eye for an Eye: The Untold Story of Jewish Revenge Against Germans in 1945. In fact, the book was rushed into publication to accompany a segment on CBS’s „60 Minutes“ featuring Morel’s story.
Getting his book published didn’t end John Sack’s troubles, however. Some of the reviewers challenged the book’s authenticity. One headline read „The Big Lie, Continued.“ Another reviewer called it „false witness“ and still another speculated that „none of this ever happened.“ Although the Morel story was carried in newspapers in Tel Aviv, „in the United States, except for ‘60 Minutes,’ only The New York Times carried it,“ Sack said.
The American writer insists there are lessons to be learned from his research. „How can we say to other people, the Germans, the Serbs, the Hutus, ‘what you’re doing is wrong’ when we ourselves do it and then cover it up?“ he asks.
„How could the Germans do it? Until we find out why, these holocausts will continue. If we hate and we act on that hate, then we have even more hate later on. You don’t have to be a German to become like that. We all have it in us to become like Nazis. Hate is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the bigger it gets,“ Sack says. His belief in his mission is expressed most succinctly in his book’s dedication: „For all who died and for all who, because of this story, might live.“
As for the book’s commercial reception, the New Republic carried one advertisement for it but wouldn’t carry a second one. Instead, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier said shortly after the book came out that it was „one of the stupidest books I’ve ever read and I frankly resolved to do as much damage as I could.“ At the time of the book’s publication, neither The Washington Post nor The New York Times reviewed it. This unwillingness even to acknowledge the book’s existence led New York magazine to publish an article in May 1994 headlined „The Book They Dare Not Review.“ That article reported that two leading scholars, Istvan Deak and Arno Mayer, had verified that the kinds of crimes Sack reported in his book did indeed take place.
Eventually The Nation, a liberal journal, printed an article on the book by historian Jon Wiener. However, it contained statements by both Deak and Mayer that seemed to recant or disavow their quotations in New York magazine. Wiener’s own conclusion was that Sack „distorts and sensationalizes history.“ Wiener added that although Sack „deserves credit for finding and doing the work on an important story ... his lack of skill as an historian is crippling.“
Writing in the extreme Zionist New Republic, Harvard University’s Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of the heavily publicized book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, attacked Sack personally, accusing him of „outright omission or virtual concealment of relevant numbers ... fictionalization [and] insouciance about hard evidence.“ The Harvard Crimson then accepted an ad in which Sack challenged Harvard’s Goldhagen to a debate, a challenge that was not accepted.
Sack’s interest in speaking at the Holocaust Museum resulted from an invitation to Goldhagen to speak there in April 1996. Goldhagen’s thesis is that most of the German people were willing participants in the Holocaust, and that their crimes were rooted in German history and culture.
„I’m basically saying the exact opposite of Goldhagen – that you don’t have to be German to do this,“ Sack said. „When I see all this publicity going to someone who’s absolutely 100 percent dead wrong, I want to speak out.“
In his National Press Club talk Sack acknowledged, in answer to a question, that Basic Books printed 17,000 copies of his book, but that it no longer is obtainable from the publisher. Sack refuses to attribute this to censorship, but instead blames the vagaries of the book trade.
Nevertheless, he admitted that he now is trying to buy back the rights from Basic Books. If he concludes that the publisher is deliberately trying to keep the book off the market, Sack vows to have the last word. „If I can’t get the rights back, I’ll put it on the Internet for free,“ he told his audience.
„Thus, as we do nothing but enact history, we say little but recite it: nay, rather, in that widest sense, our whole spiritual life is built thereon. For, strictly considered, what is all knowledge too but recorded experience, and a product of history; of which, therefore, reasoning and belief, no less than action and passion, are essential materials?“
- Thomas Carlyle