Death Becomes Us 

Three books on the fragility, brutality and transcendence of human existence

The stories of nations are stories of violence -- human upon human. Television news tells us that on any given night. But rarely do we see death and violence placed in historical and social context and intimately examined as in each of these three very different, powerful books.

Masters of Death: The SS- Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
By Richard Rhodes
(Alfred A. Knopf: New York), $27.50/hardcover

In Masters of Death, Pulitzer Prizewinner Richard Rhodes meticulously examines the Einsatzgruppen, professional German killing squads deployed in Poland and the Soviet Union by Heinrich Himmler's SS, early in World War II. Best known of the killing grounds where Jews were lined up, shot and buried en masse in trenches was Babi Yar in Kiev, the largest of them all. But as Rhodes explains, 1.5 million men, women and children were executed between 1941 and 1943 by the Einsatzgruppen, predecessors to Hitler's extermination camps, gas chambers and crematoria.

There were, in fact, thousands of Babi Yars, largely overlooked by Holocaust historians who have focused instead on the "Final Solution," aimed at western European Jews. "Killing sites await memorials all over eastern Europe," the author concludes. Working from Nuremberg Tribunal documents and personal accounts by witnesses and survivors, Rhodes makes the long march across eastern Europe, tallying the count.

Bloodless accounts like this one from SS Commander Karl Jger's report of Dec. 1, 1941, make the book at once stunning and virtually unbelievable: "I can state today that the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania has been reached by Einsazkommando 3," says Jger, bragging that this unit accomplished a total of 137,346 deaths in five months.

Rhodes doesn't seek just to shock; his motivations are twofold -- to try to understand how "ordinary" men could kill so ruthlessly and to honor the dead. Schemes to eliminate Christian Poles, ethnic Russians and some 30 million Slavs are also unfolded in this stark, scholarly work that will no doubt take its place alongside the most important works of Holocaust history.

Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas
By Joyce King
(Pantheon Books: New York), $24/hardcover

Joyce King, author of Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas, is a former CBS radio anchor-woman who was demoted in Dallas to a lesser job then assigned to Jasper to cover the trials of the three white men accused in the notorious dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., a well-loved black man in that rural, east Texas community. At first reluctant to cover the story because of racist events in her own life, King eventually became obsessed with the story and all it represented about race relations in America.

King does not condemn Jasper, a town of 8,000, half black and half white, with a black mayor, but contends that what happened there could theoretically happen anywhere in the U.S. Two of the offenders who dragged King three miles down a back road by a logging chain attached to the back of a pick-up truck, leaving a "three-mile trail of dried blood and flesh," were local boys John William King, recently returned from prison, and Shawn Allen Berry, 23, a known hothead with a history of minor skirmishes with the law. The third, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was a prison buddy of King and a fellow member of a prison gang of white supremacists, the Confederate Knights of America.

While paying due respect and tribute to Byrd and his family and to the hideousness of the crime, King also dwells on the violence learned as a matter of survival in Texas prisons, which she terms "racism factories." There is little satisfaction in the two death sentences and the capital conviction handed out to the three defendants at the end of the book, given the proliferation and continuing brutality of that system and what it creates.

In a July 22 op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor, King wrote that most of the sales of her book up to that time were to blacks and most positive reviews appeared in the black press. But Hate Crime, she says, "is the story of us -- Black and White in a marriage that tests humanity."

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
(Little, Brown and Company: New York), $21.95/hardcover

The runaway fiction hit of this summer is Alice Sebold's first novel The Lovely Bones, the unnerving and ultimately moving account of the aftermath of the death of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, a young girl dreaming of high school when she is abducted by a neighbor, raped, killed and dismembered. The author mercifully spares us most of the gory details of Susie's murder and instead sends us straight to heaven where Susie narrates the story, beginning: "I was fourteen when I was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973."

Susie's idea of heaven is a cool high school and a duplex she shares with another teenaged girl, but her attention is still riveted on Earth where she follows the activities and dissolution of her family in the aftermath of her death. Sister Lindsey, one year older, smart and strong, quietly negotiates between her anger and her desire to escape into a life she can claim as her own; Susie's father obsesses over the probable guilt of their neighbor, Mr. Harvey, a quiet man who, it turns out, has killed before; and her mother pathetically retreats into adultery, finally leaving the family altogether.

"Murder has a blood-red door on the other side of which was everything unimaginable," says Sebold who wisely chooses to depict the shock waves that touch everyone when someone is killed violently and unexpectedly. Sebold began writing The Lovely Bones in 1996 but set it aside to write Lucky, a memoir of her vicious rape at knifepoint when she was an 18-year-old freshman at Syracuse University. With abductions in the news and the shameless nightly pandering and exploitation of both victims and survivors by newscasters, it's refreshing to read an open-eyed account, albeit fictional, that brings us back to the bare lovely bones -- the beautiful and simple facts of life, love and death.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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