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Wounds heal, but memories remain

The old man pounded his fist on the wooden table to get the attention of the six strangers sitting with him.

He held up first seven fingers, then three. "Drei-und-siebzig Jahren," he said. 73 years old. Satisfied with his pronouncement, he took a pull on the remaining beer in his liter stein.

The rest of us toasted him for his achievement. I also munched on one of the large pretzels he had generously bought for the table, one of a hundred or so in the Bavarian beer hall. The old man smiled and laughed, asked the women at the table to dance and complimented us all for things I could not understand with my limited vocabulary.

This pleasant evening of beer, pretzels and music was almost a relief after a day of disturbing sightseeing. My peregrinations had taken me to a quiet suburb of Munich called Dachau. Almost 50 years earlier, the first Nazi concentration camp opened there. American soldiers liberated it 40 years ago. Now what is left of the camp stands as a memorial to and reminder of the people who died in the Holocaust.

The administrative buildings now house a museum chronicling the rise of Nazism and its attendant evils: militarism, anti-Semitism, repression, and genocide.

Most people know of these evils and have an intellectual understanding of what those words mean. But it was not until I walked through the reconstructed barracks, stood in the gas chamber, saw the torture implements, that I felt what the words mean.

What got to me were the ovens. The bodies of those worked to death, experimented on and executed were burned there. I touched one of the ovens. Outside, I sat on a bench for a long while before moving on.

I signed in the memorial's visitors book my full name: Robert Ernest Malchman -- Ernest after the grandfather who had the courage and good sense to leave his business and get out of Fascist Italy with my grandmother, mother and uncle in April 1939.

His nephew Victor was not as lucky. His family spent the war hidden by a Catholic family in Trieste. I met Victor a few years ago. He was warm and friendly, but his eyes never rested, and his hands almost always trembled. My uncle told me Victor has been like that since the war.

My mother made a point of exposing me to the Holocaust whenever possible. I remember one day as a small child when she and I were riding in a taxi. It was warm and the driver had his sleeves rolled up. "Look at the man's forearm," my mother whispered. There was a number<>

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tattoed in blue on it. "That means he was in a concentration camp during World War II," she continued, explaining exactly what that meant.

I do not know whether my step-sister's husband has a blue number tattooed on his forearm. I do know he was in Auschwitz. My step-sister said he believes he would not have survived if the Soviets had liberated the camp two weeks later. I am torn between wanting to ask him about it to learn, and fearing to make him recall painful memories.

We tread a narrow, often uncertain path concerning the Holocaust. On the one hand, we must never forget. Already revisionists claim the Holocaust never happened, that the camps were a lie. If we are not vigilant, someday people may believe the revisionists; someday there may be another Holocaust.

On the other hand, we cannot condemn a population for the evil their fathers did. Hating the Germans is both pointless and unreasonable.

President Ronald Reagan strayed from this path when he visited the Bitburg military cemetery Sunday. to help mark the 40th anniversary the end of World War II in Europe. He also went to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Reagan at first did not want to visit Bergen-Belsen because he feared it might embarrass the Federal Republic by drawing attention to its predecessor's wrongs. Going to Bitburg, where 48 S. S. troops lie buried among the German army dead, would bring the new allies closer, Reagan said.

I do not know whether the old man at the beer hall has a blue number tattooed on his forearm -- or an S. S. uniform hanging in his past. I do know he was of voting age when the German people gave Hitler power. If he voted, there is a four-in-ten chance that he voted for Hitler.

What did this nice, old man do in the war? How would he react if he knew I am Jewish? How would he have reacted 40 or 50 years ago? Would he still buy me a pretzel? Or does it matter now?

As I stood up to leave, the old man rushed over. He toasted me, wished me good health and happiness, and extended his hand. I shook it warmly, sincerely wishing him the same. If I was wrong, if I left the narrow path, I also did not cause more pain.

I understand the president's position on Bitburg and Bergen-Belsen: He also does not want to recall painful memories. He wants to help Chancellor Helmut Kohl politically because Kohl is instrumental in the implementation of Reagan's European military policies. The Holocaust, however, is a lot more than pain-<>

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political agendas.

The Holocaust will claim victims forever. Our knowledge of the beast in others awakens the beast in ourselves. We turn to the same methods of repression against those we hate.

We try to silence the words of the neo-Nazis, the Klan, the Communists, not realizing that maggoty evil grows best in the dark, out of sight. And I darkly suspect an old man who may be guilty of nothing more heinous than being a 73-year-old German who buys people pretzels.

I hate the Nazis, but still I realize that hatred will not remove the blue numbers from people's forearms, or help my cousin or my step-sister's husband. It certainly will not help the millions who did not escape, who died during World War II.

Reagan succeeded in reminding the world of the horrors of Nazism. But the anger and demonstrations his actions caused obscure the message that the people of West Germany should have no malice borne against them for the sins of the Third Reich.