2016-06-30
Last week, Nelson Mandela, the extraordinary South African leader, honored Louisiana with a visit. In a minor footnote, the local Nazi clown, David Duke, demonstrated against Mandela's presence. To my dismay, the demonstration received local television coverage, in some cases on equal footing with Mandela.

The media always has a difficult decision when dealing with a mediagenic anti-Semitic provocateur like David Duke. On the one hand, if you ignore him, you are leaving yourselves open to a charge of bias, and leaving out part of what happened. And more cynically, you are killing a great story. On the other hand, it's awful to give publicity to David Duke.

But this latest incident in the career of Louisiana's home-grown Nazi recalls a problem Jews in Louisiana have faced several times. Throughout Duke's public career, including most recently a run for Congress last fall, many in the community have felt the best strategy is to ignore him, figuring that openly opposing him would only inflame his supporters and play into his hands by providing him free publicity. The result is that Duke all too often gets a free ride in the press.

For instance, Duke participated in several candidates' forums with five others running for Congress last fall--and not one person running called him on his overt Nazi views. They all feared galvanizing his supporters. That was more or less the attitude toward Duke in the mainstream Jewish community in Louisiana as well, going back to the time Duke was elected as a state representative in 1989.

But on June 6, 1989, at the Great Memorial Hall of the State Capitol, something happened that had a profound effect on the politics of the state. Anne Skorecki Levy, Holocaust survivor, confronted David Duke, Holocaust denier.

An exhibit of Holocaust photographs had been mounted there in protest of Duke's election to the legislature. Anne Levy had come with a group of New Orleans Holocaust survivors to bear witness. She noticed him coolly gazing at the photographs, which showed in graphic detail the suffering in concentration camps. Outraged, the woman oft described as "the petite, dark haired grandmother" tapped him on the shoulder. "What are you doing here? Why are you looking at this?" she asked. Her voice was tremulous. "I thought you said it never happened."

David Duke tried to weasel out of the situation. But with the attention of the media drawn to the scene, he quickly fled. For Anne Levy--a private person with an immense legacy of pain--the confrontation was a moment of public courage and triumph, and a testimony to the power of what Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell aptly calls "troubled memory."

"Troubled Memory" is the title of a new book by Powell just published by the University of North Carolina Press. It's unusual in many ways. Powell is a historian, but certainly not a standard Holocaust historian. His previous books are on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Louisiana politics. It's the last term that provides the link: "Troubled Memory" grows from Powell's effort to understand with proper respect and depth what happened in those few moments in the State Capitol of Louisiana.

Two citizens of Louisiana met. One, a woman who suffered as a child because of the Holocaust, another who celebrated Hitler's birthday, sold Nazi books, and denied the carnage ever happened. The confrontation had the immediate effect of galvanizing anti-Duke efforts, including Powell's own remarkable organization, the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism.

But clearly, something about the confrontation haunted Powell. Going against the norms of academia, which dictate focus on areas of expertise, Powell spent the past eight years researching and interviewing members of Anne Levy's family. He went to Poland and interviewed survivors there. The core of "Troubled Memory" is a powerful, harrowing account of the war years and their aftermath, in which Anne Skorecki, her younger sister, Lila, and their parents Mark and Ruth, survived together as a family.

At one level, "Troubled Memory" reads like a gripping novel of family survival against impossible odds, with heroes, villains, clever escapes, and ruses. Trapped in the town of Lodz by the Nazi invasion of Poland, and then trapped by circumstances in the Warsaw Ghetto, which the Nazis eventually liquidated, the family endures a series of catastrophes: near starvation, disease, constant fear, while having to witness over and over hideous murder, intense cruelty, and death.

Even when Ruth and her daughters escape the Warsaw Ghetto at the very last possible moment, hiding in a garbage truck, their ordeal is hardly over. The family must survive on the other side of the fence, in Warsaw, posing as Catholics, where one slip of the tongue could mean denunciation and death.

To call the survival of the Skoreckis lucky would be a trivialization. Their survival as a family was miracle after miracle. At the end of the war, when the sad remnant of the Jewish people gathered in Displaced Persons camps, the sight of an intact family was an extreme rarity.

Powell is unsparing in his account of the complex moral ambiguities of the situation: anti-Semites who nonetheless help some Jews, Jewish policemen who betray Jews, and all the difficult morality of survival. As a foreman in a Warsaw Ghetto shop supplying uniforms to the German army, Mark Skorecki may well have acquired the power to save lives--and the dreadful responsibility to choose who would live.

As parents, Ruth and Mark had to take desperate measures. The Nazis frequently inspected the shop where Mark and Ruth worked, and snatched children from their parents. Anne and sister Lila spent much of their childhood literally hiding in the dark. They sat for days on end in silence in forlorn basements, or cramped inside a specially constructed vegetable bin, or hiding under a factory floor--hideouts cleverly constructed by their father.

Meanwhile, Ruth showed courage and pluck, organizing the distribution of food and even finding a way to educate her children. The war years read like an adventure story. With every twist and turn of the plot, you are in fear for the lives of this family, where one wrong word--or even the cry of a baby--can mean death. Powell engages the reader in the intricate details of survival to help us understand how high the cost of survival was and how precious and important to preserve its memory.

Yet memory is troubled. The hiding places and the darkness were not only physical--survivors constructed special trap doors and hiding places in the mind as well. And even after the escape, after living in Germany, after coming to America, these doors do not open easily. The difficulty of memory, the trouble of memory, is a major theme of this work. At one level, it is simply the difficulty of remembering exact dates and times. But the problem goes deeper. Suppressing identity was often the key to survival, and that suppression continued for the Skoreckis long after the immediate danger passed--even after they arrived to the apparent safety of Louisiana.

On his home ground, Powell explores a second, more intimate kind of denial, as the story moves to the arrival of the Skoreckis in New Orleans in the 1950s. At first, in the rush to assimilate, to be like everyone else, the survivors try to leave the past behind. That is why it was so difficult for Anne Levy to confront David Duke--and so necessary.

In reading of Anne's courage, and that of her mother and father, Ruth and Mark, it becomes quite clear that David Duke doesn't deserve to appear in the same sentence with Anne Skorecki Levy, let alone the same book. Perhaps the goal, and reward, of Powell's effort is precisely to make that fact--and the troubled history that lies behind it--undeniably real.

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