THE MERIDIAN HOTEL
- The angle of incidence being equal to the angle of reflection, the way we understand history is the way we look to the future.
- I am looking at you now, Gestapo-man, looking at your old body, considering your sagging chest, your thinning hair, the spot on your inner wrist where your SS blood group tattoo should have been, but wasn't. I am considering the missing fingers, the missing eye, destroyed by Mossad mail bombs in two different decades.
- We are somewhere in Syria. We are at, perhaps, the Meridian Hotel in Damascus. I take this as metaphor, both meridian and Damascus. We measure from here. We are blinded by the light of the bomb. We change our name. The government here has protected you, the enemy of Israel.
- (When I write "Israel," I mean both the country and the name the Nuremberg Laws forced every male Jew to take.)
- God, Brunner, you are so old now. Looking at you, I can barely see the man who saluted Eichmann after receiving his orders, the man who commanded the Drancy transit camp outside of Paris, the man who deported Jews from Salonika and Vienna, the man who ran the trains.
- The man. Who?
- Brunner, I look at you and I see a phantom, a last chance at vengeance, a final connection to history. When I ask you what time our interview is, I mean what year we began looking for you.
- We are drinking tea in the lobby of the Meridian Hotel. We are measuring from this spot.
- Hannah Arendt mentions you four times in her book on your supervisor. 1.) "Eichmann thereupon sent Alois Brunner, one of his toughest men, down to Nice and Marseilles"; 2.) "In February, 1943, two of Eichmann's specialists, Hauptsturmfuhrers Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner, arrived to prepare everything for the deportation of the Jews from Salonika"; 3.) "[Eichmann] called Wisliceny and Brunner from Slovakia and Greece [to Hungary]"; 4.) "The R.S.H.A. sent Alois Brunner to Bratislava to arrest and deport the remaining Jews. Brunner first arrested and deported the officials of the Relief and Rescue Committee, and then, this time with the help of German S.S. units, deported another twelve or fourteen thousand people."
- (Dieter Wisliceny, your partner in crime. He gave testimony at Nuremberg, then they extradited him to Czechoslovakia, where they hung him, same as they did Eichmann fourteen years later. Meanwhile, you stayed quiet, hidden in Germany, confused with other Brunners.)
- Brunner, you were the traveler. Your boss sat in his office and you were the boots on the ground. Your boss scheduled the trains and you loaded the trains. Troubleshooter, you. Problem-solver, you. I look around the lobby of the Meridian Hotel and wonder if you feel trapped here, hiding behind your alias. Georg Fischer.
- I am 33 years old, Brunner, the same age you were when you vanished in plain slight from history. I am an American of German descent, hiding behind my Irish father's name, and to be German-American is to apologize. I am not in Syria, you are perhaps not alive, and yet here we are in the lobby of the Meridian Hotel, the place from which we measure the world, conducting an impossible interview at the edge where memory becomes history.
- You understand that we are short on time, Brunner. You are a man who kept things running on time. There are only six veterans of the First World War, only thirty-five veterans of the Spanish Civil War. How many of you are left? Who can still think back to the sound of the cattle car closing? Who can still see the faces sent away to the East?
- Brunner, I must admit that I am grateful for your phantom nature. It makes it easier to deal with you, to know that even now, you are translucent, powerless, an old man in an old hotel.
- Let's begin the questioning:
- Did you expect to be the last? How long did you think you could last after Hitler killed himself? Did you and Eichmann send each other postcards, addressed to your aliases? Dear Riccardo, Dear Georg? When the Israelis found him, junior water engineer, did you walk more carefully, seeing shadows jump at you from the alleyways, Israel himself returning from the vanishing point of the train tracks you laid down?
- Brunner, I would say take your time but we have so little of that left. 97 years old, and you may be dead already.
- Today the newspaper published a story about an engine mechanic, retired, returning to Germany to stand trial. Once, we thought he was a guard at Treblinka, but we were wrong. Now, we think--no, this time, we can prove--that he was a guard at Sobibór and Majdanek. He is 89 years old, in a wheelchair, and the United States extradited him to Germany.
- I worry that we may be taking this too far. Is there anything we can gain from this? What good is justice if justice is too late?
- Brunner, you are not the last Nazi alive (especially since you may be dead already, I do not know, I cannot tell if what sits across the table from me here in the hotel is man or ghost or legend). What you are, though, is the possibility of knowing.
- I suppose that I am sorry that we are chasing you; that we are shipping men in wheelchairs overseas so that we may say that we never forgot, never quit until all the perpetrators had died. That as long as any of you draw breath, we will hunt you down.
- But that drawn breath--it is ragged, wheezing. It is assisted by oxygen tanks. It spits phlegm when it wakes, each day maybe its last.
- This is the central question of our interview, Brunner. What do we gain by showing you mercy? The engine mechanic argued that he would be "tortured" in Germany. He used that word without trace of irony.
- (Every time I write "engine mechanic," I think of the diesel tank engines that provided the killing gas at Treblinka, at Sobibór. I am prejudiced; too many simple things carry connotations for me: engines, tracks, showers, the idea of the East.)
- Brunner, when journalists found you in the 1980s, 35 years after the killing stopped, you said your only regret was not killing more Jews, that if you had the chance, you would do it again.
- And I am supposed to leave you alone, let you die in your bed? I am trying to reconcile that with whatever mercy I may feel for you.
- Here in the Meridian Hotel, at the zero line of our understanding, of our history, I wish to put my hands around your ghost throat and, through the phantasm, feel the soft cord of the trachea close. I want to put my knee on your sternum to hold you down, to make the ribs pop like seedpods. I'll admit it: I want you to suffer.
- I close my eyes, and when I open them, I am no longer in the Meridian Hotel. I am in my room, looking through the window at a bird that has alighted upon my neighbor's fence. My fingers ache, slightly.
- History is moving on. I am sorry for what I have done and what I have failed to do. My family is from the Black Forest, the name of which is an apt metaphor for history. To be German-American is to apologize.
- Brunner, our time is up. Push your chair back, slowly rise, ascend the stairs to your room. Listen to the clock tick. You are dying by degrees within the halls of the Meridian Hotel.
- Mercy is nothing in the final minutes of our time.
- Your final breath.
- I am moving into the future.
- Brunner, Brunner. The end is always too late.
Although I'd been thinking about Brunner for a few years, this essay didn't start for me until I remembered my high school physics teacher (Mr. Perry) explaining angles of incidence and reflection, which ended up providing the first sentence.
The Meridian Hotel is a [real place]; like color footage of Hitler, Brunner's living there is an odd overlap of history.