Tuesday, May 19, 2015

`A Visit Here Can Be Rewarding'

The best parts of The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (1947), not surprisingly, are the work of A.J. Liebling, who was always more than a “New Yorker writer” (a make-believe category that would include Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty and Isaac Bashevis Singer) and even more than a war correspondent (a genuine category that would include Thucydides and Evelyn Waugh). Fifteen of the seventy pieces of World War II reporting in the collection carry Liebling’s byline, including such familiar classics as “The Foamy Fields” and “Cross-Channel Trip” (here, here and here). All of his war coverage has been collected by the Library of America in World War II Writings (2008), including one of his best books, Normandy Revisited (1958).

The rest of the War Pieces collection is the work of familiar, less distinguished writers -- Mollie Panter-Downes, St. Clair McKelway and Brendan Gill, among others. The final entry is John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a book I was force-fed in junior high school. Two Lardners, John and David, are represented, and the entire collection is dedicated to the latter, killed by a land mine at Aachen on Oct. 18, 1944. One piece, Philip Hamburger’s “Letter from Berchtesgaden,” published in The New Yorker on June 9, 1945, sparked a memory and a bittersweet discovery. For the lead to his story about the capture of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps, Hamburger writes:

“Like the Reich that Hitler built to last a thousand years, his Berchtesgaden is now a grotesque and instructive heap of rubbish. A visit here can be rewarding, especially to archeologists, anthropologists, isolationists, and anyone who has ideas, of sometime becoming a Führer.”

I remembered Richard Marowitz, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who, when I met him in the late nineteen-eighties in Albany, owned a coat factory and worked on the side as a stage magician. Almost half a century earlier, at age nineteen, he was a member of the 222nd Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon, part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. On April 29, 1945, Marowitz was among the first American soldiers to enter the concentration camp at Dachau. The following day – the day of Hitler’s suicide in Berlin -- he and other men searched a house in nearby Munich reported to have been one of Hitler’s residences. On a shelf in a closet, Marowitz found a black top hat with the gold monogram “A.H.” stamped inside. He had his picture taken wearing the hat and G.I. fatigues, holding a pocket comb beneath his nose and giving the “Sieg Heil” salute.

I can’t find it online but I broke Marowitz’s story in the Albany Times Union and wrote several additional stories about him. At his kitchen table, he let me hold Hitler’s hat. Marowitz, despite the horrors he had witnessed, was an effortlessly funny guy – jokes, comic asides, dialect. A documentary film about him was made in 2003. While looking for my story, I discovered Richard died last year at the age of eighty-eight. See my friend Paul Grondahl’s story. Richard (and Art Spiegelman) would have enjoyed the final paragraph of Hamburger’s story:

“Furthermore, the Alderhorst [the building at the summit of Hitler’s retreat] had mice. In a closet, I found a half-empty cardboard box of powder. An absolute guarantee against Feldmäuse, the label said.”

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