Irena Kirkland is, among many other excellent things, a life-affirming person and one of Washington's dozen or so Correct Thinkers. One reason she is both of these things is that she passed through a furnace few of us can even imagine and emerged an alloy of steel and laughter. Somewhere in Latin America, perhaps in Paraguay, there lurks an evil man who today has fresh reasons to fear the kind of steel and spirit he helped to produce in people like her.
Irena Neumann, as she was before she married Lane Kirkland, and her sister Alena, arrived at Auschwitz in October 1944. They tumbled from cattle cars with 2,500 other Jews. She and Alena had been sent from Czechoslovakia to a concentration camp for a year before they arrived at the Auschwitz depot under the eye of Josef Mengele.
All but 200 of the 2,500 were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers. Those spared were thought suitable for labor. Any sign of infirmity -- even wearing glasses -- could get a person selected for death. Irena and Alena (who today lives in Geneva) may have been spared because, although they were nearsighted, their youthful vanity caused them not to wear glasses.
A "kapo" -- a prisoner functioning as a guard -- asked their birth dates. Having long since lost all documents, they could have said anything, but they told the truth. When the kapo heard the identical birth dates (with their heads shaved they did not stand out as identical twins), she told them to give different birth dates. Otherwise, they would be sent to Mengele, the sadistic pseudo-doctor and science quack who conducted lunatic experiments, especially on twins, who mesmerized his small, warped mind.
Recently in Jerusalem, at a meeting of twins and others who survivedAuschwitz, a mother recalled that Mengele was enraged when she gave birth. He had not noticed she was pregnant. Novel forms of abortion interested him, so a chance had been missed. He forced her to cover her breasts with tape so that he could see how long the child would take to starve to death. He was enraged when she killed her own child with a morphine injection, an act of mercy.
The Lord said, Vengeance is mine. But here in Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is giving the Lord a hand concerning Mengele. The center has discovered documents that suggest U.S. authorities may have had Mengele in custody in 1947, and that in 1962 he may have sought admission to Canada. The center wants to know what the government knew and when it knew it, and what is now being done about tracking Mengele to Paraguay, or wherever. Good questions, all.
A federal magistrate here has just held that Andrija Artukovic, 85 and infirm, is mentally competent to cooperate with his lawyers in fighting extradtion to Yugoslavia. He faces prosecution for complicity in the murder of 770,000 persons while he was minister of the interior in the Nazi puppet government of Croatia. After four decades, Nazi crimes still resonate in this season of sickening commemorations, such as the commemoration of what is ludicrously called the "liberation" of Warsaw by Soviet oppressors.
Why, it is frequently asked, continue trying to prosecute old men like Mengele and Artukovic? Certainly the reason is not deterrence, not the prevention of Holocausts. No punishment can affect the calculations of the genocidal, who are not careful calculators of cost-benefit ratios.
Yes, prosecutions foster awareness of the Holocaust, and, yes, pursuit of the genocidal is an obligatory response to life in an age of genocides, in Uganda, Cambodia and, today, Afghanistan. But regarding the real bedrock reason for pursuing the criminals, Irena Kirkland has a more correct idea.
She knows there can be no proportionality, no punishment that "fits" the crimes. But she also knows the truth of this Italian proverb: Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. Her reason for feeling deeply pleased about the continuing pursuit of Mengele is this: Somewhere, Mengele is feeling fear.
That reason may seem to lack metaphysical flourish, and it is not "forward looking" in the sense of having a utilitarian, reforming purpose. But who cares? Irena Kirkland's reason satisfies an intuition so deeply felt that it surely expresses some constituent of our moral nature. It is the conviction that someone who has caused so much pain should never know ease. Let us just say that Irena Kirkland's thinking is correct thinking, and get on with the prosecutions, by which we keep faith with the persecuted.