I went to the death site because of Götz and Meyer.
Götz and Meyer is the title of a 1998 novel by Serbian author David Albahari, translated in 2004 by Ellen Elias Bursac. Götz and Meyer are the names of a pair of German soldiers whom the novel's protagonist discovers while obsessively researching his family tree.
While pouring over historical records, the genealogist encounters the names Götz and Meyer over and over again and begins to fictionalize them: One gives candy to children, the other dreams of being a pilot. We're encouraged to see Götz and Meyer as bit players in life's comic opera.
Götz and Meyer, however, is not a comedy. Götz and Meyer are SS noncommissioned officers responsible for picking up Jewish prisoners at the camp at the Belgrade Fairgrounds in a special truck and gassing them en route to their final destination.
By the genealogist's count, Götz and Meyer snuffed out more than 5,000 souls, including virtually all of his relatives, many of whom he never met. "For me to truly understand real people like my relatives, I had first to understand unreal people like Götz and Meyer."
Götz and Meyer is not an easy book to digest. There aren't any chapters or paragraph breaks. The narrative unfolds like a nightmare verdict. Fiction colludes with the facts of the Reich's unspeakable crimes, which are immense. The numbers coerce the reader to compute abominations. Two men. Five thousand souls. More than 700,000 people killed in the trucks that the Nazis referred to as "soul swallowers."
The second half, if possible, is more harrowing than the first. The genealogist is also a history teacher, and his obsession seeps into the classroom. The novel culminates in an ill-advised field trip to the fairgrounds where the protagonist comes dangerously close to suffering a complete breakdown.
"Memory, I said, is the only way to conquer death, even when the body is forced to disappear, especially then, because the body merely goes the way of all matter and spins in an endless circle of transformation, while the spirit remains in a transparent cloud of mental energy moving slowly through the world and pouring, randomly as it first may seem, into restored matter, so that no one knows what they'll find in themselves when they look within."
When I looked within, I realized how little I knew about the atrocities committed in Eastern Europe. I had no idea the Nazis' mad plan extended as far south and east as Serbia. For weeks after reading Götz and Meyer, I walked in a cloud, rattled and depressed.
Albahari's "cloud of mental energy" was much on my mind last summer when I visited the Paneriai Memorial on the outskirts of Vilnius in Lithuania.
In 1939, Lithuania came under Soviet power. One of their many projects was the construction of a fuel depot near a railway station in the forest outside of Vilnius. They never got to finish, leaving behind massive holes in the earth. Some of these trenches were more than 100 feet long and nearly 30 feet deep. When the Nazis moved in during the summer of 1941, they found a use for these pits.
Thus, a bucolic setting in the forest became the place where 100,000 people—at least 70,000 of them Jews—were put to death. Today, we know precisely what happened at Paneriai because of a courageous journalist named Kazimierz Sakowicz, who at great risk recorded what he saw on scraps of paper and buried the evidence in the woods.
His testament is recorded in Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of Mass Murder, which was edited by Yitzhak Arak, translated by Laurence Weinbaum and published by Yale University Press in 2005. Ponary Diary (the Polish spelling of Paneriai) offers a rare glimpse of the Nazi killing machine in hurried, perfunctory prose: "Quite nice weather, warm, white clouds, windy, some shots from the forest."
Walking through the memorial, the wind soughing in the towering pines, my head full of numbers I didn't know what to do with, it was hard not to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of what transpired here. In a place with a complicated past that few Americans have ever heard of, in a country many would not be able to find on a map, I took heart in Albahari's urgent plea to remember. If memory is to have any hope of conquering death, the written word will always be an essential part of the equation.
Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.