For Stalin's Victims

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The biggest single-ship disaster in history took place on a freezing night in January 1945, when Russian torpedoes hit and sank the German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff. The liner was unarmed and unescorted, and was carrying thousands of German women and children rushing to the coast of East Prussia in an attempt to escape by sea the approaching Red Army. Nine thousand people died that night, six times more than in the Titanic and nine times more than in the Lusitania. Many of those on board were wounded German soldiers who never had a chance. Twelve hundred people survived, including 100 children.

Only one book has been written about the tragedy, by an Englishman, and even that sank without a trace. Some of the survivors are still alive, and because of the publication of a novel by Gunter Grass, they suddenly find themselves in the news. The consensus is that 57 years after the event, they still have nightmares remembering the screams of the children, or the looks of resignation on the faces of the wounded on deck. In the closing days of the war, the victims of the sea tragedy were largely ignored, just as those old men, women and children, 70,000-plus, who were incinerated in Dresden, a city of absolutely no military importance, were.

Postwar Germany's literary elite and historians ignored the victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff, just as they largely ignored innocent German sufferers of the war. In fact, it was seen as politically incorrect to portray any German as victim long before the term was popularized. No longer. Gunter Grass, a left-winger and Nobel Prize winner, has just published a novel, In Retrogression, that deals with the forcible removal of nearly seven million Germans from lands in East Prussia, Poland and the Sudetenland, which had been settled by their ancestors during the Middle Ages. Grass, who wrote The Tin Drum more than 40 years ago, an account of the rise of Nazism in Danzig, has now broken the wall of silence. The irony is that the expulsion of Germans from the eastern territories was one of the greatest taboos of postwar history, while the left, led by Gunter Grass, emphasized only German remorse. Better late than never, as they say, although it cannot be much comfort to those still alive.

The reason these forcible evictions and massacres?1.7 million German prisoners of war died or were murdered in the Soviet Union alone, whereas close to three million civilians died immediately following the German surrender?have not gone down in history as major crimes against humanity is obvious. Set against the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka, they sort of pale by comparison. But a crime is a crime, and a German mother cries as bitterly as a Jewish one, or a Palestinian for that matter.

Der Spiegel recently ran stories of human tragedy concerning the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. It related the story of a boy who was born in the ship's hospital one day before the liner went down. His mother had been fleeing homeward in an attempt to find her fiance before giving birth. After the three torpedoes hit the ship, she ran on deck, holding her baby tightly. The infant was covered in a green jacket and cap. As she struggled to hold onto a rope ladder leading to a lifeboat, a soldier took the baby and told her, "Once in the boat I'll pass it down to you." But a wave swept the lifeboat away.

But this one has a happy ending. When a rescue ship, Lion, picked her up, a stranger handed her a bundle. The one-day-old boy was safe and sound, but she never found out what happened to the soldier.

In Grass' novel, the heroine is based on this woman. Grass, now 74, has apparently seen the light and wants to commemorate those Germans who died as a result of Allied bombing and in the mass flight from the east.

Which brings me to the point I wish to make. Those who died in the Wilhelm Gustloff and during the bombing died while there was a war on. The later and far larger expulsions took place after the Potsdam agreement, after the war in Europe was over. Hundreds of thousands were raped, murdered and robbed, without a single American, British or French protest. The Germans, in fact, had become the new "untermenschen." Nobody has ever atoned for these dead, and no one has ever publicly regretted their fate. Acknowledging these sins now simply serves the consciences of those who tried so hard in the past to keep the victims as invisible as possible. So I have an idea. As the list of sacred days mounts up, why not add one more: a memorial day for the millions of victims of that festival of slaughter by the Red Army. And it can coincide with the memorial day for all the victims of communism in Russia, in China and throughout the world. March 5 would be appropriate, the day Joe Stalin croaked. One thing is for sure. I won't be holding my breath waiting for it to happen.

Anyone who dares challenge a victor's history is, of course, considered a revisionist, and whereas the German people can be shamelessly maligned by the Daniel Goldhagens of this world (if Goldhagen is an historian, I'm a banana), anyone defending the memory of innocent German victims is up for lynching. The more I think of it, the more I like the idea of March 5 becoming a memorial day for those innocents who died under Uncle Joe Stalin.

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