The tomato soup was delightful. The quail, neither greasy nor dry. Though I preferred the white wine served with the appetizer to the following red--which seemed a bit casky--I wasn't about to mention this to my host, the ambassador.
If this sounds like something out of a Henry James novel, well, it felt pretty weird to me too. I was squirming in my elegant chair in a private dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel this past September, snared in a roundup of Jewish journalists and delivered before Alfred Defago, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, so he could tell us how sorry his government is for having played banker to the Nazis during World War II. How much it regrets that for half a century afterward Swiss banks kept the money from thousands of accounts belonging to Holocaust victims, their heirs turned away empty-handed with bureaucratic dodges: I'm sorry, but you'll need to get an official death certificate from the Nazis confirming that they shot your parents in the head and dumped their bodies in a slit trench in some forest in Poland....
Not that Defago used these words. Everything the ambassador said was correctness itself. Polished. Poised. His words would look good engraved on a coin. And his timing was perfect--a little late in the grand scheme of things, but right in keeping with 1997. This was the year for making nice with history. The Brits apologized for the Irish potato famine. The squeaky-clean Norwegians apologized to the Laplanders for past indiscretions. Even the French, who never apologize for anything, were lining up to say how sorry they were about their various lapses, misdeeds, and crimes during World War II.
Jews were the favorite object of public contrition but not the only one. President Clinton gathered the few surviving victims of the infamous Tuskegee experiment and invited them over to the White House so he could look them in the eye and repent from the bottom of his heart. Clinton's good at that--from the sincere look of dolor slapped all over his mug, you'd think he was there at the clinic, pretending to treat syphilis and lying to patients. He even trembled on the brink of issuing a mea culpa for slavery but then pulled back, perhaps because there are no ex-slaves still around to summon for a photo op.
But nobody was as energetic as the Swiss. They sent Ambassador Defago on a whirlwind display of repentance. Apologia U.S. Tour '97, the T-shirts might have read.
What he said made perfect sense. During the war survival was at stake. The Swiss had themselves to think about. Nothing was guaranteed. And those darn banking rules.
Made sense but did not convince. First, there was the unexpected shock of the confession. I felt as if some stranger on Michigan Avenue had grabbed my arm and started babbling about how sorry he was for beating his wife. Even if I found him sincere, I'd still want to pry myself from his grasp and get away.
Second, there was his choice of audience. We journalists were invited because we're Jewish. That's what the consulate asked when my editor phoned in our RSVP--"Is he Jewish?" I guess the idea is, if you rob one group of Jews, you can mitigate your crime by apologizing to any other, randomly selected group of Jews, even in a different country at a different time. We're interchangeable, aren't we? We all look the same stripped naked and piled on the back of a truck.
Third, there was the veiled threat behind the apology. Anti-Semitism is up in Switzerland, the ambassador said, his face a mask of woe. Anti-Semitism inflamed by all this unfortunate talk of guilt and gold and reparations and dusty wrongs of the past. We're doing all we can to keep it under control, he said, not quite adding, So why don't all you disgruntled American Jews shut the fuck up before we have fascists burning synagogues in Geneva?
But the implied threat was there, which stripped the gold from his glittering apology, at least for me.
And finally, I wasn't buying any of it. I mean, bravo that the Swiss might actually return some of the money they stole, after the requisite investigations and hearings and further delay. But isn't the whole idea of an apology that the wronged party can either accept or reject it? I'm certainly not forgiving them. That is an option, isn't it, when somebody apologizes? Sure, it goes against our sitcom morality, which dictates that everybody hug after 30 minutes, having learned their lesson. "Gee I'm sorry, Neilster, sorry about trading our Swiss francs for all that gold bridgework pried out of the mouths of your grandparents." "Oh that's OK, Al--you great big lovable slab of white chocolate, you. I love you, man!"
I can't accept their apology, because I'm not the wronged party. They didn't get my money. They didn't turn me away at the borders. My grandparents were all safe in America by the time Lindbergh flew the Atlantic.
Maybe somebody else could accept the Swiss apology. If we could assemble the ashes of those who tried to get into Switzerland but were turned away and killed, and of those who could have used their money and died before they got it; if we could gather them all together and use the mud to build even one living person, like the Golem of Prague, then maybe the Swiss would have someone to accept their apologies.
But me? Jews of today? Do we really care what the Swiss have to say, at this late date? Why can't they just pony up the money they owe and be quiet?
Frankly, I didn't even like being in the room. I kept gazing down at the polished surface of the mahogany table, at the basket of fresh-cut flowers. There was something obscene about it. I felt as if I were participating in one of those countless high-level meetings, those frank exchanges and urgent appeals, that took place in a thousand private dining rooms before World War II--talking, talking, talking while the gears of history ground heedlessly on. This was theater.
So now public opinion has squeezed the Swiss so hard that a "Sorry" has squeaked out. Joy. Next year it might be BMW--the Bavarian Motor Werks ran a slave labor camp during the war. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has a picture of BMW's Staircase of Death, where prisoners were forced at gunpoint to carry huge stones up a long staircase until they dropped dead. Gives a whole new meaning to "The Ultimate Driving Machine," doesn't it?
Maybe next year someone will threaten a boycott, and BMW will say it's sorry, just as Ford Motor Company did after the war, when Jewish groups pointed out that Henry Ford was an unrepentant anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer and that maybe Jews should buy Buicks. Ford went through the motions and everybody was happy, as if the apology had bubbled up from the goodness of the company's soul.
With this in mind, I asked the ambassador why he thought the actions of the Swiss during World War II had become an issue now. He didn't talk about international pressure hurting business but about the end of the cold war, and maybe he has a point. Without the Soviets to press against, people have become unmoored--perhaps unhinged--and now they're wandering back into history, trying to set things right.
Defago had a meeting in Skokie that night with 500 members of the Jewish community, including Holocaust survivors. Taken by his charm, swayed by a nice free lunch, I steeled him for an angry confrontation, not quite apologizing in advance but warning him that these things can get rough. You can't install a mailbox on a suburban street corner without a hundred angry residents screaming about the dangers--"My kid could bump into that thing!"--and demanding that the change be blocked. I felt sorry that this nice, polished gentleman had come over from Europe to be shouted down by Jewish people. I guess I was worried that we'd look bad.
Only after the evening was over, after something happened in Skokie that was infinitely worse than the awkward confrontation I'd imagined, did I realize just how much I'd been co-opted and finessed at lunch.
The ambassador was warmly received. He praised Skokie, pointed out that this was the month of Elul, the beginning of the season of repentance. Heads nodded; applause rang out. "He's wonderful," a woman said. The audience liked the ambassador, just as I had, and rose to express their thanks and admiration before posing carefully framed questions regarding the screwing of their fellow Jews. Any sharpness in the questions disappeared in the velvet fog of the ambassador's eloquence. All except one. Somebody asked about the Swiss bank guard who'd inflamed the current flap by swiping a pile of incriminating documents from his bank's shredder room. The guard had fled to the United States and was being prosecuted in the Swiss courts.
The ambassador explained somberly that the guard might have violated Swiss secrecy laws. The government in Switzerland has no influence over its courts, and besides, he probably wouldn't be found guilty of anything and the matter would be dropped (which is indeed what happened).
I found the answer shocking and waited for the angry buzz, the howl that would mark a rush to the stage. Wasn't this the exact sort of bureaucratic fiddling that the ambassador had supposedly come here to decry? Immediately after apologizing for the amoral administrative dodges of the distant past, the ambassador is confronted with a current situation, throws up his hands, and says, Rules are rules, and besides, this isn't my table.
Nobody reacted. He had us in the palm of his hand. Nobody was going to scream. Nobody was going to be rude, point a finger, or condemn him. I had worried for nothing. We would file in, wait patiently, ask our questions, receive diplomatic, evasive answers, and then file out. "Polite, respectful, and orderly," I whispered to Joseph Morris, the president of the midwestern B'nai B'rith. "That's how they were able to have a Holocaust in the first place."
It ended, and I left wishing they had seized the ambassador and hung him, on general principles. Just because Jewish people are a fierce, warlike race known for their unprovoked savagery. Give those Swiss banking bastards back home in Zurich something to think about as they pore over their accounts.
But we aren't fierce. And history cannot be rewritten. It can only be contorted to serve the ends of whoever takes the time to grab it and give a few twists.
The thing about history, though, is that no matter how you distort it, it always finds a way of popping back into its true shape. You can't go back and fix the past. No amount of apologizing can change that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner,.