I’ve come to realize I’ll never know what really happened, and I’m trying to make my peace with that.
Did Willy Selinger, Commandant of the labor camp at Adampol, order the SS down on his own people? Harold Werner, a partisan, says he made a phone call. Under oath, Selinger tells a different story, of a cavalry unit shooting his Jewish workers while he was kept under house arrest. No, he doesn’t remember the name of the officer who was watching him, he only met him once.
What difference does it make? It happened seventy years ago. My family lived, the Nazis are all dead. But it whispers in my ear, tugs at my conscience. If he was a good man, his name should be honored. If he was a bad man, well…then a bad man was good to my family.
I’m writing the final installment in my collection of linked stories, and he’s the star, or rather, Willy Reinhart, who is based on him, is the star. You’re supposed to know your character inside and out before you sit down to write. You’re supposed to know what he would do or say in any situation. Surely, you should know whether he is a good man or a bad man.
I have a general outline for the plot, a beginning, a middle, an ending, some metaphors, a couple of clever plot devices. After all, my family lived through it. But here’s what happens. I write ferociously for a few pages, read it over, then crumple it up; I’ve made him sound too much like an Alan Furst hero. I write it over again, altering the angle of the story–and now it’s too cautious.
When I originally wrote to the Nazi War Crimes Archives, I had a list of questions. Who was Selinger? Where was he from? What was his position? What did he look like? What happened to him after the war? What made him want to protect his Jews, when other German officers were clearly monsters?
I guess I expected a tidy list of answers, maybe even photographs. Instead, I received a random set of documents–primary sources, typewritten testimony. Reading them is like decoding a detective story. Slowly, answers emerge. There’s a statement concerning the brutal murder of a favorite worker early in the war years. Despite incontrovertible evidence, the killers spent a total of two weeks in jail–because they were German, and the victim was just a Polish worker. Perhaps this was the event that radicalized him, this might be why he tried so hard to save his laborers later on. In another document, a witness describes the horrific scene of the Adampol massacre, and says Selinger wasn’t there. In a third document, I learn that he was divorced, and spent the remainder of his life quietly working on a farm with his two elderly sisters. The last document is dated after his death. He appears to be exonerated somewhat; there were rumors he was in touch with the partisans.
Regretfully, there’s no picture. As I write my stories, I glance at the cover of Peeling the Onion, at a black and white photo of a young, boyish Gunter Grass, smiling craftily at me through a haze of smoke.
Whether I’ve guessed the actual truth or not, I have arrived at the version of the truth that I will write. My Willy Selinger was a decent man living in bad times. He gathered the best workers in the area to his work camp. Instead of jailing them, he treated them like human beings. Due to early successes, he believed he was in control of the situation. If they just worked hard, and if he just kept making deals with the devil, he believed they would survive. Just like Schindler’s List…until the SS swept down on Adampol and killed them all, while he sat helplessly in his handsome house, listening to the gunfire.
That’s my truth…the one I can live with.