The Book They Dare
by John Lombardi
May 9, 1994
©1994 by New York Magazine
At GQs Christmas party the year before last, editor-for-life Art Cooper glanced up from his Moet glass to behold a very unhappy face: a junior-junior editor who'd just spent weeks checking a 10,000-word story by John Sack. The former Esquire magazine star had written a stunning piece on Jews who'd "turned the tables" on Germans after World War II, contributing to the deaths of 60,000 to 80,000 of them in prisons and concentration camps. The young GQ woman had located a Columbia University professor who'd independently authenticated Sack's startling research (Antony Polonsky, the respected Brandeis University scholar, soon did the same for Basic Books, which would publish Sack's full-length account). But now the junior editor had just learned that GQ was killing the story. "Why?" Sack recalls her asking Cooper. After he'd spluttered for a few moments about "the libel laws in Britain," where GQ is also distributed, she interrupted him: "Bullshit, Art. It's a Jewish thing, isn't it?" (Cooper says the encounter never happened and calls the imputation absurd.)
In fact, several senior members of Conde-Nast's in-house law firm (Conde-Nast owns GQ) had trooped into Cooper's office a few days earlier, and after they'd trooped out, the normally ebullient Cooper had telephoned Sack. "This is not a happy call," he'd said. Sack, who'd once been voted "most religious" in his New Rochelle reform temple's Torah class, was mystified: GQ had paid him $15,000 plus expenses to travel to Poland and Germany in pursuit of the story; the magazine was set to ship proofs to the printer; a cover had been dummied with a top line that read a death camp run by a jew, and Cooper had even called Sack's story "the most important ...in GQ's history." Yet suddenly British libel laws were being invoked as a reason to cancel everything?
Sack began shopping his story--which focused on Solomon Morel, a Jewish camp commandant at Schwientochlowitz in Poland--to likely buyers: Harper's Magazine, where Sack had been a contributor, rejected the manuscript as "overheated"; The New Yorker refused to even read it; Rolling Stone declined, commenting, "I'm sure you'll understand"; even Esquire, under then-editor Terry McDonell (who'd sent Sack to cover the Gulf War), passed, calling the story "too bloody" (!). Only Jonathan Larsen, the editor of The Village Voice, would publish the piece, which he did last March. After researchers had spent a week vetting it, Larsen joked, "This may be the most accurate story in the history of American journalism."
So why the great reluctance? Solomon Morel, the protagonist of the Voice excerpt, was finally being sought by the Polish government for what amounted to crimes against humanity, and Sack's hyperactively written book, though sympathetic to Morel, constituted a virtual indictment. After recounting how Morel had lost his family to Polish collaborators during the war, he described Morel torturing German civilians at Schwientochlowitz (where he'd been placed in 1945 by postwar Poland's Jewish-dominated Office of State Security), inviting drunken party guests to beat the Germans with clubs:
The Voice piece affected the media in two ways: Alarms went off that Sack had produced a tract that would prove useful to those whom Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, would later characterize as "the enemies of truth," i.e., traditional anti-Semites and right-wing crazies interested in denying the Holocaust and showing that Jews were as "bad as Nazis"; and excitement grew at Basic Books, which signed Sack up, and 60 Minutes, which dispatched its own researchers to verify Sack's reporting.
60 Minutes came up with eight eyewitnesses, independent of Sack, who reported that Morel had indeed "[trampled] on us with his boots and kick[ed] us in the head" until "many" died; "beat people over the head [with stools] until skulls were so badly smashed that people were left dying," and submerged prisoners in freezing water. In all, at least 1,500 Germans and Poles perished in Morel's custody after the war, according to the German Federal Archives.
The incidence of such crimes was later verified by Professors Istvan Deak of Columbia University's Institute on East Central Europe and Arno Mayer of Princeton University's history department. "The great majority of political police officers were certainly Jews," says Deak, "and many among them were out for revenge--but this must be put in the context of Poland after the war. Stalin may have chosen Jews deliberately, so they would cause resentment and could be blamed later." Confirms Mayer: "I don't play the numbers game, but it's more than likely that that was the case."
The evidence was incontrovertible but unwelcome. At the same time that Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, which romanticized the motives of a German businessman who'd saved 1,100 Jews from the death camps, began gathering media momentum, An Eye for an Eye was published by the highly regarded Basic last November, and then reported on by 60 Minutes. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League immediately blasted the report as untrue, arguing that Morel, "while born a Jew," would have been better described "as a Communist of Jewish origin"; Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress appeared on 60 Minutes, warning viewers that "you cannot rely on eyewitnesses [because] you're insulting the memory of 6 million martyrs."
Wieseltier, too, was incensed: "I'm not embarrassed to say that as part of my job of policing the culture, I felt that the sooner we stopped this book the better." He felt he lacked "the scholarly equipment" to properly attack the book himself; however, so he gave it to Daniel Goldhagen of Harvard's Center for European Studies. Goldhagen wrote a devastating piece that impugned Sack's research and interpretation--like Foxman he questioned the "Jewishness" and number of Jews implicated in the crimes: "Whenever a Jew was involved in some brutality, no matter how irrelevant to the deed…Sack leaps to identify him as…a Jew"; "Sack's…claim that 75 percent of those in the Office of State Security in Silesia were Jews [is] sheer invention," etc. Goldhagen's rhetoric is rote--Sack's arguments were not "sober or learned"; "in no sense does [his book's] empirical basis justify its packaging"; it creates "a sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle indictment of Jews in general," and thus feeds ancient ant-Semitic prejudices. In a subsequent exchange of letters, Wieseltier allowed Goldhagen to sidestep Sack's rebuttals--that the 75 percent figure represented the number of Jews in leadership positions in Silesia; that the Jews had identified themselves as Jews; and that he'd never made any reference to "Jews dominating Poland" at all. Nevertheless, Wieseltier says now, "It's one of the stupidest books I've ever read, and I frankly resolved to do as much damage as I could."
One of Wieseltier's and Goldhagen's main objections was Sack's prose. It was far too "spontaneous," cracking jokes and "recreating" dialogue--all high-journalese methods completely inappropriate for serious historical documentation. As a matter of fact, Sack's style, forged in the sixties when he was one of the preeminent "New journalists" at Esquire, had failed to flatten itself in accordance with nineties "stenographic" tastes. The latter objection had already been raised by book editors who'd seen An Eye for an Eye before Basic bought it. Bob Loomis at Random House, for example, said the approach should have been "reserved and clear" but was "too hyped and overwritten"; Kent Carroll at Carroll & Graf didn't like "the novelistic style" and felt that the "anecdotes and stories don't really give a sense of what…happened" (!); Lee Goerner of Atheneum worked the other side of the street:, "[It] is rather an interesting story. But for these tired eyes, not told with very telling effect." Terry McDonell, then of Esquire, however, laid the fish on the plate. "Don't believe it," he told Sack. "They're scared, and I'm scared, too."
The New Republic's POV seemed to be the subtext for Bettyann Kevles's Los Angeles Times review and for Daniel Wick's San Francisco Chronicle piece, but most U.S. publications, rather astonishingly, simply ignored Sack altogether. Although the New York Times has been meticulous in covering Holocaust-related subjects, and though An Eye for an Eye was rushed to managing editor Joseph Lelyveld and assistant managing editor Warren Hoge, columnist Abe Rosenthal, Times Book Review editor Becky Sinkler, and Warsaw bureau chief lane Perlez, no mention of the book has ever appeared in the paper; fifteen phone calls to Sinkler and her deputy Marvin Siegel went unanswered; and Rosenthal, when reached, asked for a synopsis, then laughed and said, "I've never heard of this author or his book, okay?"
Nina King of the Washington Post's "Book World" likewise recalled running "a brief descriptive mention" but no review of the Sack book, and speculated that "it must have gotten lost with all those other Holocaust books, but I assure you we wouldn't have been influenced by The New Republic"; arts editor Ray Sokolov of the Wall Street Journal acknowledged that no review has run or is planned, but would say only that "it's not our policy to discuss these matters"; Chris Porterfield, Time's cultural editor when An Eye for an Eye was published, felt that it might have "run afoul of our end-of-year scheduling, when we do best-of lists and children's books"; a Newsweek editor, who asked not to be named, said the magazine has "300 books a week to deal with," and though aware that Newsweek had run a "Periscope" item on Sack's magazine flap, had "no idea there was a book"; AP and Reuters reporters, who'd interviewed Sack and promised news stories on Morel, said "the daily crush" of fresh news--Hillary's stone-walling on Whitewater, Tonya's ice-skate guilty plea--and the "tiredness" of the subject had doomed their coverage…
Every excuse was perfect.