The kind of thing that could never happen again . . .

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 09, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Near the end of his life, my father told me a story that had haunted his memory for half a century about the death camps of Europe in World War II.

''That kind of thing could never happen again,'' I assured him, with the wisdom that comes from too many hours spent reading the sports pages.

My father just looked at me and shook his head forlornly. His son still had so much to learn.

If he were alive today, my father would read about the concentration camps of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the criminalizing of language to hide the act of murder, and he would say, ''Yes, it was just like that.''

He lived on Finlay Avenue in the Bronx back then, in the late 1930s, when the mass killing was arriving in Europe and Americans still thought they could watch safely from the sidelines. He was still in his teens.

''I remember some newsboys,'' he said one evening late in his life, ''and they were coming down Finlay Avenue, 10 o'clock at night, and screaming, 'Extra, Extra! Hitler Persecuting the Jews!' ''

He sat on the couch in my living room, all those years after the fact, and the memory was still vivid in his head.

''It was the New York Mirror,'' he said, ''which sold for 2 cents in those days. And they were charging 10 cents, because the story was just overwhelming. I can hear them hollering from the street: 'Hitler Persecuting the Jews.'

''To this day,'' he said, ''I can still remember the chill that went through me. In the dead of the night, this terrible news, and

everybody suddenly realized how connected we were.''

Once again, the newspapers bring us the unthinkable. From Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are photos of Muslim prisoners at a camp run by Serbs. An orphaned child cries from a shattered bus taking her to some place she's never known. The latest reports use a phrase that is new to the English language: ethnic cleansing.

From his grave, Hitler himself should fire off a salute and cry: '' 'Ethnic cleansing!' How pure! How antiseptic sounding! Why didn't I think of it?''

In my living room, I asked my father, ''When did people find out how bad it was with the Nazi death camps?''

I remembered reading old newspaper stories about Allied soldiers reaching Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen at the war's very end, and sending stories that no one wanted to believe. And I'd seen Edward R. Murrow's film clips from a liberated camp, where he told of rotting corpses and overbearing stench.

But it always seemed inconceivable that people didn't know, long before war's end, of the millions sent to their death for reasons of . . . well, ethnic purity.

''The full extent,'' my father said, ''I'm not sure anymore when we knew what was really happening. It's been so long. I guess the end of the war.''

''Aha,'' I said, full of professional pride. ''See, that's why it could never happen again. Reporters would expose it. The whole world would see it happening, and make it stop.''

My father knew better, I guess. In a lifetime that included the witnessing of all sorts of political sellouts, he had learned a few things about human nature.

And now, my pride down around my knees, I find maybe we're all learning things we wish we were not. The photographs from the Serb concentration camps are mirrors of the Nazi camps, and yet the world hesitates. The talk of ethnic cleansing sickens us in our souls, and yet the brutality goes on.

This American president once talked of Saddam Hussein as ''another Hitler,'' but then let him slip away in the midst of a war. Would he have done the same for the real Hitler, or is the language of politics now polluted beyond any traces of truth?

Now he sees the camps that remind all of us of the original Hitler, and once again he appears frozen.

Every year in this city, the Jewish community gathers at the Holocaust Memorial and utters the simple phrase: ''Never again.'' But for whom? If the lesson isn't universal, then there is no lesson at all.

Half a century ago, the world turned its back. ''Those Jews, they're different from the rest of us,'' the non-Jews could tell themselves. It's a way to keep yourself from going mad with the cruelty of it all.

In the city's poorest black neighborhoods now, we read regularly of the gunplay, and the children going down from random shootings provoked by drug traffic and family breakdown and hopelessness and the rest of the familiar litany intended to explain the unexplainable.

And white America reads the news and thinks: ''Those blacks, they must be different from us.'' It's a way to distance yourself from the pain.

It's no different in Bosnia-Herzegovina: ''Those people, they must be different from us.'' It's our emotional distance, to keep our hearts from breaking.

But governments aren't supposed to distance themselves. In his late start, the American president does not appear prudent so much as politically calculating: How will it play in Peoria if we send in the troops?

In the interim, a paralysis of will sets in, and people die. Extra, Extra: The Persecution Goes On. Ethnic cleansing, if you will. Removing some from the others.

''It could never happen again,'' I told my father, who knew better. ''Reporters would tell the story, and government would have to take action.''

But reporters are telling the story this time. And the photographers send back pictures to tear at our hearts. And I can hear my father now: ''You think it couldn't happen again?''

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