THE GREAT BETRAYAL
“Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never.
Elie Wiesel, Night.
Mother and I sat facing each other in our compact San Francisco kitchen after I had returned from my day at high school.
“Rebecca,” she said, reaching across the table to hold my hands, her voice strained, “we took your grandpa to the doctor. He told us the test results show your grandpa has terminal cancer.”
“Yes. That’s why he doesn’t have an appetite and sleeps a lot.”
My chest tightened. “When did Opa get cancer?”
“We don’t know. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
I stared at my mother’s tense face and tearful eyes. “There must be something the doctors can do.”
“I wish there was.” Mama sighed. “He’s resting in his bedroom. I’m sure he’d like to see you.”
Opa was my favorite family member. He was always interested in what I did and how I felt. He encouraged me to do well in school, and he loved to hear me play the piano.
I entered his darkened, antiseptic-smelling room. Seeing his gaunt face as he sat in bed, eyes closed, propped by pillows, I shivered and thought about the fragility of life. I was shocked and scared that my beloved Opa would soon leave me. Not knowing when he would pass, I wanted to stay at his bedside.
“Opa,” I whispered.
He opened his eyes. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Rebecca.”
“Thank God you are here,” he said in his German accent. “I do not like being alone.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
“You are a sweetie.”
“Do you need anything, Opa?
“No.” He coughed and grimaced. “Rebecca, you are seventeen now?”
“You are a lovely girl. I always loved your ginger hair.”
“Thank you.” His compliments made me feel good about myself.
“So … what’s new in the world?”
“Great news. Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa.”
“He is a good man.”
“Yes, he is. Do you remember when he and former President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year?”
“Yes,” he coughed again. “Those two deserved the prize.” He slid to a lying position. “I want to show you something. Look under my bed for a small box.”
I kneeled on the floor and pulled out a brown shoe box. “Here it is.”
“Good. Open it. What do you see?”
“A silver pocket watch.”
“Ja. I bought that after I got my first paycheck in America.”
“Oh, what’s this?” I held up a string of pearls. “It’s beautiful.”
“Oma fell in love with that necklace when we saw it in a shop window.”
“And you bought it?”
“Not on that day. I told her it was too expensive. The next day I went back to the jeweler’s store to buy it. On her birthday, I gave her the pearl necklace wrapped in tissue paper inside a nice box. When she saw the necklace, she said, ‘But we cannot afford it.’ I answered, ‘They are for my queen.’”
“Opa, how romantic.” I pressed my hand to his warm cheek.
“Ja. Now sweetheart, look for a letter to Anna Nomberg.”
“Okay.” I shuffled through a small stack of frayed envelopes. “I don’t see it. Wait, wait. Here’s one with a stamp that says, Deutsches Reich. The writing is faded. It’s addressed to Anna.”
“Take the letter out of the envelope and give it to me.”
He held the brownish paper in his trembling hands. “I wrote this letter in German when I was eighteen. My aunt kept it for me. I will translate.”
Weilheim, Germany, 26th April 1936
Dear Aunt Anna,
I am Jacob, Mandel Roth’s son. I am sorry to tell you that my father died last week after a long illness. He often talked about you, his sister. My mother died three years ago.
I am worried about what will happen now that Adolf Hitler is in power. I would like to leave Europe as soon as possible and come to America. Can you help me? If not, I will go to Palestine.
I am very much looking forward to receive your reply.
“I didn’t know both your parents had died at that time. That must have been hard for you. Did you have brothers or sisters?”
“I had three older sisters and one older brother. They all had jobs, and they thought Hitler was so extreme he would not remain in power. But I saw signs of a catastrophe for our people.”
“What happened to your brother and sisters?”
“A Christian neighbor wrote to me in 1942 from Weilheim saying the Germans forced my sisters and brother out of our family home. They probably died in a concentration camp.”
I gasped, feeling a chill. “That’s terrible.”
“Ja.” He tightened his jaw. “I think about them every day.”
“Did your aunt reply to your letter?”
“Ja. She invited me to come here. And she sent money for my passage on a ship. I entered the United States through Ellis Island when I was nineteen.”
“How long did you stay in New York?”
“One day and one night. I rode on a train for four days to get to San Francisco. Excuse me. I … I’m so tired.”
“Opa, you should rest.”
“You are right. Leave me for a while and take the box. Everything in it is yours to keep.”
“But … I can’t.”
“I have no need for possessions now. You are my treasure.”
After school the next day, I took a bus to 24th Street. I ambled home on the sidewalk, past a familiar mix of Victorian houses and modern buildings while traffic hummed on the road. The warm spring sun filtered through the canopy of ficus leaves.
I put my schoolbooks on the bed in my narrow bedroom and looked in a mirror. People said I was pretty, but I knew I had a plain face. I overheard my mother say that to her friend.
In the kitchen, I drank a glass of milk. Then I went to see my grandfather, who was sitting against his bed pillows.
“Hi Opa. How are you feeling today?”
“My legs are stiff.”
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“Just rub my calves, please. With that nice smelling oil. Maybe that will help.”
I lifted the sheet and massaged Opa’s thin calves.
“Ah … that is good.” He sighed. “Now bring a chair to the side of the bed.”
I brought a straight-backed chair and sat near him.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, as he often did when he was thinking. “I never told you much about Oma Olga, your grandmother. If you are interested, I can tell you a little story about her and me.”
“I’d love to hear it. I saw a photo of her. She had a kind face.”
“So kind,” he said in a soft tone. “She died when you were a baby. We used to go to concerts, you know.”
“I remember you told me she loved music. Where was she born?”
“Ukraine. Her father had immigrated to America and lived in New York. He sent her money in 1938 for a ticket on a boat. She was nineteen when she joined him and did not speak English. She and her father came to San Francisco by train.”
“What about her family?”
“Her mother had died, and her two sisters did not want to leave the place where they were born. The Germans murdered them. And many others.”
“That’s so sad.” Tears blurred my vision.
“A tragedy. A few months after she arrived in San Francisco, her father wanted her to marry. He chose a man to be her husband, but she did not like him. She begged her father to choose someone else. He agreed and chose me.”
“Was it love at first sight?”
“It was. We married in 1939. Her father and Aunt Anna were our only guests. I was twenty-one and Oma was twenty. We lived with her father in a small apartment.” His smile showed a dimple.
“You have such a nice smile. Were you both happy?”
He closed his eyes and soon fell asleep.
The next morning, after the fog cleared, I attended a Sabbath service at our temple. On my return, I peeked into Opa’s room and saw him sleeping. In the kitchen, I enjoyed challah and chicken soup with matzah balls, then returned to Opa’s darkened room.
“Good to see you, sweetie,” he said, his deep blue eyes bright. He gestured to the chair at the side of his bed. “Did you enjoy the Shabbos service?”
“Yes, Opa.” I had especially enjoyed talking with my friends after the service.
“And you had a good lunch, my pretty Rebecca?”
“Yes. I was so hungry. Now I can’t eat another bite.”
He laughed a staccato burst. “That reminds me of my Aunt Anna. She would say in Yiddish, ‘Ess, ess, mein kind.’ It means eat, eat, my child. She worried that I did not eat enough.”
“I had enough. Simple food, but enough.”
“What kind of food?”
“Bagel and lox, brisket, latkes.”
“I love potato pancakes.”
“Me, too. You are looking out the window. You seem distracted.”
“Did you meet someone new today?”
“Are you perhaps thinking about your friends? A boy?”
My cheeks felt hot. I had been thinking of a tall, good-looking boy I saw in the temple.
“I can tell when you are not really listening,” he said. “Now, will you go to the living room and play the piano for me? I will listen from here before I take a nap. Chopin is my favorite composer, you know.”
The chill of twilight promised a cold evening.
“Many years ago,” Opa said when I returned to his room, “I belonged to a group called The New Life Literary Club. The members were people who had lived in Europe when Hitler was in power. We told our stories about what we lived through. They were hard to tell and hard to listen to.”
“You never told me those stories.”
“I did not want to tell you about the terrible hardships we faced.”
I straightened my shoulders. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“Believe me, those stories about cruelty and suffering would give you nightmares.”
“What story can you tell me?”
He scratched his bald head. “Maybe one from during the war?”
“Let me think. Um … would you like to hear how I earned a living in America?”
“In my first job, I worked long hours in a sweatshop making men’s clothes. Competition for jobs was fierce, and wages were low.” He squeezed his lips together. “On my day off, I studied English so I could get a better job.” He winced. “Uh … after …. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many men went to fight against the Japanese. Also, they fought the Germans and Italians. I was not drafted because ….” He breathed with a rattling sound in his chest. “Because I failed the fitness test.”
“Maybe because I worked hard for five years in a cramped place where the ventilation was poor. I had bad headaches and shortness of breath. Then I heard IBM was looking for workers. I passed their aptitude test, and I was hired in 1942.”
“You worked for IBM?”
“Ja. For two years. My boss sent me to IBM School in Endicott, New York. For technical training. I remember the five top steps before the front door of the school. They were engraved with the words, ‘Read, Listen, Discuss, Observe, Think.’”
“What did those words have to do with work?”
“IBM believed they were the five steps to knowledge while studying and working.”
“What was it like to work there?”
“Formal. I had to wear a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie every day. No mustaches or beards were allowed. I shaved my mustache before my job interview. I did well at IBM. And the pay was good. But something a co-worker said bothered me. So much so, I could not get a good night’s sleep.”
“What did he say?”
“My friend said IBM’s President, Mr. Watson, met Hitler in Berlin in 1937.”
“Did he? For real?”
“Ja. And he received a medal for service to the Reich.”
“A medal? From Hitler? Are you sure?”
“You do not believe me?” he asked in an annoyed tone.
“Okay,” he said, his voice lower. “It was hard for me to believe when I first heard it.”
“What did Mr. Watson do to get the medal?”
“He sold a punch card sorting system that identified people by race and religion. That made it easier for the Nazis to arrest millions of Jews. Those Jews were later murdered.”
“Ja. But three years later, Watson returned the medal.”
“People were outraged about the medal during the bombing of Paris. And the FBI began investigating IBM’s Nazi connections.”
“What did the FBI do?”
“I never found out. Anyway, I said to myself, ‘Maybe Watson admitted his mistake in doing business with Hitler.’ And I continued to work there.”
“But only for two years, you said.”
“Ja. In 1943, I heard rumors at work that IBM was continuing to do business with the Nazi government. During that time, the Germans were torpedoing our ships and shooting down our planes.” He leaned against his pillows and closed his eyes momentarily. “For a year, I made discreet investigations and inquiries. I confirmed that the reports were true.”
“Oh, my gosh.”
“I asked myself, was it to make money? Or to help the Nazis? Or both?”
I put my hand over my mouth.
“I decided I could not continue to work for IBM. When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss told me he did not want to accept it because I was his best employee. I said, ‘I can’t work for a company that does business with the Nazis.’ And I walked out the door.”
“I’m proud of you for doing that, Opa.”
“Thank you, my dear. Promise me something.”
I leaned forward. “Promise what?”
“Do whatever you can to resist evil.”
“Never forget the murder of millions of our people.”
“I believe you, my sweet Rebecca. Why did God create a Hitler? A Stalin? I’ll never understand that.” His eyelids drooped, and he yawned.
“It’s late, Opa. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
The next morning, the sun’s rays filtered through my curtains. My mother came into my room after I had dressed and sat beside me on my bed.
“My dear,” she said, “I’m sorry to tell you grandfather passed away during the night.”
“No.” Sadness crept upon me like a chill. “No.”
Numb and jittery, I lost my appetite for breakfast. How would I get through each day if I couldn’t visit Opa and listen to his stories?
Three days later, seventy people attended his graveside funeral at the Home of Peace Cemetery. After the rabbi’s brief service and Opa’s burial, we stopped our normal routines. Relatives and friends visited us for seven days during the traditional Jewish mourning period, taking part in prayer services and trying to comfort us. They brought lentils, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, nuts, bread, and milk. We shared our grief and our loving recollections of Opa.
In sadness and loneliness, I mourned for him daily.
On the first anniversary of his death, Mother, following custom, lit a thick, white candle that burned for twenty-four hours. Orchestral music and the sweet fragrance of blooming jasmine that Opa and I loved, triggered fond memories of him. Playing Chopin’s compositions and listening to the music of Liszt and Beethoven gave me solace.
The year after Opa died, I graduated from high school. Then, at San Francisco State University, I earned a Communications degree. I rented a narrow room in the apartment of a college friend, and most Friday evenings, I ate Sabbath dinner with my parents, enjoying their company but missing Opa.
My jobs at several companies in public relations, marketing and advertising for eight years paved the way for my position as Events Manager at Save the Children Foundation. The goal of the Foundation was to give kids around the world a healthy start in life and the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. During meetings with several wealthy donors over the next six years, I learned about their personal lives and business activities.
On my thirty-seventh birthday, I welcomed people at the gala event at the Intercontinental San Francisco Hotel.
Greg Davis, a respected business executive in his mid-fifties whom I found attractive, approached me at the welcome table. He limped as a result of a car accident. He lived alone in a house in Billionaire Row in Noe Valley that his family had owned for decades. His wife of thirty years had died three years prior.
“Good evening, Mr. Davis,” I said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you, Rebecca. How are you?”
“Great. I’m excited about tonight’s event. After dinner and entertainment, we’ll announce the Foundation’s achievements during the last twelve months, thanks to you and other generous supporters.”
“Glad to help.”
“We appreciate that. The evening’s highlight will be an auction of fine art.”
“It sure will be. Let me show you to your table.”
I led him to a round, cloth-covered table at the front of the hall where he recognized his friends, most of them large donors. Each donor’s daily expenses were probably greater than my monthly salary.
The donors’ competitive bidding at the auction resulted in excellent funding for the Foundation, and I thanked everyone who attended. When Greg Davis and I shook hands at the exit, he said, “Rebecca, will you join me for dinner on Friday night?”
“I’d love to, Mr. Davis.”
“Call me, Greg. I’ll be in touch.”
On Friday evening, Greg arrived at my home in his chauffeur-driven limo. I wore a black pencil skirt with a new white silk blouse, red lipstick, and a silver broach decorated with gemstones. Greg, wearing a tailored gray wool suit, opened the door for me.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you.” I slid onto the wide, leather seat and breathed deeply, trying to calm myself.
The driver took us to the Bohemian Club at Post and Taylor. The club’s members, rich and important men, admitted ladies as guests once a month.
In the dimly lit dining room, linen tablecloths covered the widely spaced tables. I sipped a strawberry daiquiri and ordered sturgeon caviar and asparagus hors d’oeuvres from the attentive server. Greg drank scotch and decided on smoked black cod with pickled onions.
We talked about organic food and the weather, then I changed the topic. “What did you enjoy doing as a child?” I asked.
He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Building sandcastles on the beach.”
“I love the beach. Do you swim in the ocean?”
“And where do you like to travel?”
“To Annecy in the French Alps.” He rubbed his hands together as if thinking about pleasant memories. “I have a few friends who live there.”
“I’ve never heard of Annecy. What’s it known for?”
“The large lake and the mountains are gorgeous. My late wife loved Annecy Castle and the beautiful old town with a canal running through it. It’s called the Venice of the Alps.”
“Sounds like a marvelous place to visit.”
“It is.” He pinched the bridge of his nose just like Opa would do. “My wife … she suffered from medical conditions in the years before she passed.”
“That must have been so difficult.”
“Yes. Also, my parents didn’t approve of her Irish blood.”
“Oh.” I crumpled the linen napkin on my lap, recalling the aversion I had experienced because of my heritage. “Are you aware I’m Jewish?”
He tightened his lips and squinted at me with his almond-shaped green eyes. “You’re Jewish?”
I nodded. “I am, although I’m not a temple member.”
“I’m not affiliated with any faith. My grandparents were Mormons, and my parents were Lutherans.”
“How would your family respond if you told them you were dining with a Jewish woman?”
“It doesn’t matter what they think. How would your family respond?”
“They would say, ‘It’s not right.’”
“Yes.” He tapped the table. “Besides my late wife’s Irish blood, my family knew she didn’t have good connections.”
“With influential people, you know. They also complained she slouched, frowned when she concentrated, and her voice was too shrill.”
“That must have been hard for you.” Wanting to change the subject again, I said, “I understand you were in Asia to start a business venture.”
“Where did you find out about the Asian business?”
“I did my research.”
His lips stretched into an amused smile. “That project is doing well. And a new product we introduced increased last quarter’s earnings.”
Our server brought our two-bite hors d’oeuvres. I relished the buttery creaminess and light nutty flavor of the sturgeon caviar.
When the server returned to hand us the main menu, I decided on grilled lamb and ginger cabbage. Greg, without looking at the menu, ordered barbeque duck with spicy peanuts.
My stomach tightening, I broke the beginning of a strained silence. “What do you think about real estate prices in San Francisco?”
“I don’t understand how young people can afford to live here.”
“Well,” he said, “some families help their children.”
“Oh, yeah.” I pushed a lock of hair behind my ear. “Did you see the game last night?”
“Yes. It was thrilling. But you don’t strike me as a baseball fan.”
I looked down, my cheeks warm. I had to be careful about what I said if I was to see him again. “Honestly, I just wanted to keep the conversation going.”
“Thank you for being upfront with me.”
My face relaxed into a smile.
“What do you enjoy doing, Rebecca?”
“Playing the piano. It’s a great way to relieve my stress. I often played for my late grandfather. He loved Chopin.”
“One of my favorites. I admire people who play a musical instrument.”
When our dessert order arrived, I breathed in the musky aroma of Périgord truffle with dark chocolate ganache and loved the garlic taste. Greg gave me a piece of his golden cake with fig, apricot and pear, soaked in rum. I relished the delicate flavor.
“Besides playing the piano, what do you do to relieve stress?” Greg asked while we drank tea.
“I work out at the gym three times a week.”
“That’s more than I do.” He raked his fingers through his gray hair.
“Would you like to join me at my gym sometime?”
He raised his eyebrows as if surprised. “Does it have a pool?”
“Two. One for laps, the other for classes. How about next week?”
“Can I ask you a question about your family?”
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Do you have children?”
“None that I know of.” He grinned. “Do you?”
“No. And I’m sure about that.”
After dinner, his chauffeur drove us to my home. We arranged to meet at my gym the next Thursday.
“Thank you for a pleasant evening,” I said.
I shook his offered hand before leaving the limo, pleased that he hadn’t kissed me on our first date.
Greg and I swam in the lap pool at my gym, where I admired his taut body. He invited me again to dinner at his club, and our evening ended with only a handshake. I thanked him and told him I enjoyed his company, wondering if I should have kissed his cheek.
On our third dinner date, I relaxed. After our meal, I accepted his invitation to join him for a late-night drink in his home. Sitting on a love seat in his spacious living room, we sipped martinis.
“I heard a joke on the radio,” Greg said.
“What is it?”
“Why do men like smart women?”
I grinned. “Tell me.”
I laughed a hearty laugh, then hiccupped. “I’m smart. But you are too.”
“I’m lucky I met you,” he said, his tone sincere. “You’re a good listener.”
“Especially when I’m with someone interesting.”
We exchanged a long, bold stare, and he slid his warm hand over mine. Leaning toward him, I touched his thigh. He hesitated, then his quivering lips brushed my cheek. Running his long fingers through my hair, he brought his lips to mine.
He stood, held my hand and led me to his bedroom. My breath quickened, and I felt a thrilling, radiating heat. He unzipped my dress and unclasped my bra. His suit, shirt and underwear dropped onto the carpet. He fondled my breasts and slid down my black lace panties, my back damp with perspiration. I made slow designs with my fingertip on his wide chest, stroked his back and firm butt, and lightly bit his shoulder.
“Yes,” I whispered, “yes.”
I awoke early and stared at the vaulted ceiling. I listened to the steady rain and occasional gusts of wind, imagining the quiet street below Greg’s home and people lying in their warm beds. When I grasped Greg’s hand, he pulled me to him. We made love again. Later, I showered, chuckling with the thought of spending more time with him.
The thick dawn mist hung low while we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and eating the mushroom and spinach omelet and buttered ciabatta Greg had ordered from a nearby bakery.
“You know, Rebecca, it’s good to share breakfast with you.”
“I’m enjoying it, too.”
His cheek twitched in nervousness. “I’m … I’m lonely a lot.”
“After my wife died, I felt I’d never want to be close to another woman. I’ve been thinking about asking you something … something important.”
“What?” I asked, nervous but also savoring the moment of excitement.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs. “I need the love of someone special.”
“And you’re that special person.” He stroked his ear. “Will you move in with me?”
“Greg, I really like you. And I have a wonderful time when we’re together.”
He narrowed his eyes.
“But,” I said, “I’m not ready to live with anyone.”
“Disappointing, but I understand.” His shoulders sagged. “I won’t pressure you. Would you consider going with me on vacation?”
“Where to?” I hadn’t traveled much, and the opportunity intrigued me.
“How about Fiji, the British Virgin Islands, Bora Bora?”
“Sounds wonderful. I’ve never been to any of those places.”
“I’d love to share the sights with you, my beautiful lady.”
Leaning forward, I kissed his cheek. “You flatter me.”
“It’s a well-deserved compliment, darling.”
I grew to love Greg soon after our first intimacies. He said he loved me during our frequent dates, and I believed him. I always told him I loved him dearly. When I was with him, I felt a sense of belonging, a completeness, a safety.
In Fiji, we took a seven-night cruise to Yasawa and Mamanuca islands, where we snorkeled. At the British Virgin Islands, we waded through the turquoise water in the coves. And in Bora Bora, we rode in a glass-bottomed boat, viewing wildlife in the clear water. Our shared experiences brought us closer.
In the summer of 2016, Greg gave me a three-strand, white pearl necklace that had belonged to his grandmother. The gift reminded me of the pearl necklace Opa gave me. Thrilled that Greg had given me a sentimental family item, I enjoyed wearing it when we attended the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala, a black-tie event.
A month later, after a candlelight dinner at Greg’s home, he said to me, “I’m going to France for a month to investigate business opportunities. Then to Charleston for a week.”
He had never told me where he traveled alone or what he did. “What are you going to Charleston for?”
“To spend time with friends and attend an IBM Annual Meeting of Stockholders.”
“Yes.” He rubbed his cheek. “I’m on the Board of Directors.”
I stiffened. “When I was seventeen, my grandfather told me he had worked for IBM. He resigned after two years.”
“He said the IBM President, Mr. Watson, met Hitler in Berlin in 1937.”
Greg arched an eyebrow.
“And Hitler gave him a medal,” I said.
He frowned. “Three years later, Watson returned the medal.”
“So, you’re familiar with this?”
“But after Pearl Harbor, IBM continued to do business with the Nazi government.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“I know. But I’d like to research and learn about those events.”
“Sure,” he said.
The look in his eyes, the turn of his head, showed me he disapproved.
Greg returned from France and Charleston and invited me to the busy Mandalay Restaurant on California Street. We met there and ordered tea leaf salad and noodle soup with mushrooms and bean curd.
“I miss you when you go on business trips,” I said, delaying telling him the results of my research.
“I’m glad to be back and especially to be having dinner with you.”
“You know I love you.”
He chuckled. “You’ve only told me a million times.”
“How was Charleston?” I asked.
“The board meeting was effective. And I enjoyed seeing old friends.”
The food arrived, but feeling as if I had a lump in my chest from nervousness, I could only eat a few spoons of soup.
“I researched the history of IBM and other companies during World War II,” I said.
“Is that right?” he asked, a hint of irritation in his voice.
“Yes. The truth stunned and horrified me. Did you know IBM equipment made it easier for the Nazis to identify and arrest millions of Jews?”
He stuck out his chin. “IBM provided a punch card sorting system.”
“That system identified people by race and religion,” I said in an unsteady voice. “That explains how the Germans killed so many Jews during the war years.”
“What?” He stopped eating, his face rigid.
“It’s the truth. In or near every large concentration camp, IBM helped maintain a customer site known as the Hollerith Department.” I took a notepad from my purse. “The Auschwitz code on IBM equipment was 001, Buchenwald 002, Dachau 003. The code used to identify Jews was 8 and 12 was for Gypsies.”
He banged the table, and his face reddened. People stopped eating and stared at him. “Rebecca, why blame IBM for something done with their products? I don’t need to hear this.”
My hands shook. “I won’t tell you anything more about my research. But I would like to ask a couple of questions.”
Greg sighed. “Go ahead.”
“While IBM was doing business with the Nazis during the Second World War, did the Germans wound and kill members of the Allied armed services?” I balled my hands into fists under the table. “Did they torpedo our ships and shoot down our planes?”
“Rebecca, what’s done is done.” His green eyes darted with impatience. “Let’s just enjoy our food.”
“People need to know and be reminded of what happened,” I said, my voice rising. “There’s something else. I discovered that other American companies transacted business with the Nazis.”
He leaned back and watched two men enter the restaurant. “Which companies?”
“Ford manufactured a third of Germany’s trucks during the war.” I pressed my elbows into the arms of my chair. “Did anyone talk or write about that?”
“Some people did.”
“International Telephone and Telegraph improved the Nazi communication systems. And other companies—”
He stopped me with a wave of his finger. “Enough, Rebecca. Those companies didn’t know about mass murders.”
“Maybe they didn’t want to know.”
“I can’t stomach any more of this subject. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
He paid the check. We left the restaurant, then walked in opposite directions.
That night, I paced in my room. Should I continue my relationship with Greg? Did he understand my anguish? My head pounded. I felt as if I was struggling in a raging storm. For hours, I rehearsed what I would tell him the next day.
In the early morning stillness, I fell asleep, dreaming I heard the agonized howls and screams of children, women and men. I awoke, perspiring, to the wail of a siren.
Greg arrived at nine that morning. We sat in the living room, drinking tea and eating biscotti. Foghorns blared in the bay.
“Greg,” I said, my head throbbing, “I’ve loved being a part of your life. I’ve enjoyed our times together.”
He stroked my fingers. “Loving you has made me a better person.”
“Thank you for telling me that.” I swallowed hard. “But … do you want me to ignore the fact that you’re on the IBM Board?” I asked in a quivering voice.
He turned sideways, crossed his legs and pressed against the back of the hardwood chair.
I drew in a long breath. “Do you think I’m okay with you assisting a business that provided equipment to identify millions of my people who were murdered? Also prolonging World War II?”
His face stiffened. “No.”
“God knows I’m haunted by what the damn Germans did.” I clenched my hands. “What are your responsibilities as a Board member?”
“Corporate management.” He cracked his knuckles. “We watch the bottom line.”
“That means,” I said, my words thick with anger, “during World War II the Board knew the company provided a service to the Nazis.”
“They probably didn’t understand the consequences.” He rubbed his chin and scowled. “Listen. IBM develops products that have enormous technology benefits. For example, they developed an air defense system for the American government.” Speaking faster, his voice grew louder. “I can’t change what Watson and the Board did decades ago. But today, with my business experience, I can contribute to IBM’s success while growing my investments. And I enjoy the company of like-minded people.” He glared at me, his cheeks flushing pink.
If he had lived during World War II, he would have supported the business dealings between IBM and the Nazis even if he knew about mass murders. That thought exploded in my head and revolted me.
“What don’t I know about your other business activities?”
He pounded his fist into his palm. “Why are you asking?” he said, his voice icy.
“I’m just curious.”
“Are you saying I work with unethical companies?” His hand shook in anger.
“I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I’ve nothing to hide. Ask all you want.” He twisted his cufflink. “Tell me what you’ve been thinking … but not saying.”
“I … I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do.”
“I wish I could get over this hurdle.”
“Rebecca, if you can’t, I’ll miss you.”
“And I would be lonely without you.” I squeezed my hands.
“Most people see me as a rich man with social status. They don’t care about me,” he said, his voice firm. “You do care, and you respect my need to be alone at times. You allow me to concentrate on my work.”
“I would like to continue doing that. But my grandfather would have hated me to be in a relationship with an IBM Board member. My parents and my other family members would be dismayed. I never told you that the Germans murdered grandfather’s three sisters and brother. They also murdered my grandmother’s two sisters.”
“Yes. I can’t suppress my obsession to discover everything about companies that conducted business with the Nazi government.”
“Rebecca, will you consider that IBM is a different company today than it was during the Second World War?”
“I can’t separate them. I just can’t do that.”
“Well … for me, getting and keeping wealth takes a never-give-up attitude. I must focus on my financial objectives.”
“I don't do that.”
“I know.” He kept his voice low. “Not having children of my own, I get pleasure from my donations that give kids a healthy start in life. A chance to learn. I also enjoy taking you to excellent restaurants and exotic resorts.”
“Thank you for all that.” I rubbed my knuckles. “I’ve thought a lot about the mass killing of people. What do you think motivates genocide?”
“There could be many reasons.”
“Revenge, power struggles, economic reasons.”
“Or because they believe their victims are a threat?”
“I don’t know.” He examined me as if seeing a stranger, the blue veins in his neck pulsating. “Perhaps we should take a break from each other.”
“Yes.” My breath stuttered, and I tried to hide my disappointment with a tight face.
He stood and hurried away, limping, and closed the door behind him. I felt the sting of betrayal, alone in disappointed silence.
For the next four years, Greg attended Save the Children Foundation’s gala events. A young, black-haired woman always accompanied him, clinging to his arm. I couldn’t help feeling jealous, and sad and angry. I missed his smile, his touch. Sometimes I imagined we would date again, but I soon pushed that thought out of my mind.
I met other men through the Foundation events. They asked me to join them for a meal or a show, and I kept the dates casual.
In 2020, at age forty-three, I accepted another job offer at a non-profit foundation and didn’t see Greg again.
As a child, I often heard the term “Nazi beast” during my parents’ conversations. I asked about the beast, and the answer was, “Some things a child should not know.” I realized later my father and mother wanted to protect my innocence.
A part of me preferred to ignore the horrors caused by the Nazi authority and the companies who conducted business with them before and during World War II. But I felt duty-bound to document how they prolonged the war, which resulted in more human suffering and deaths.
My investigations into business dealings with the Nazis tapped my critical, creative and emotional capabilities and often brought tears. To learn that companies like the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), Ford, General Motors and Standard Oil had business transactions with the Nazi government, haunted me.
Stories I listened to and read, described the terrors and trauma of war. An old Russian war veteran, his eyes moist, told me, “Every day I wake up thinking about the enemy soldiers I killed. And I grieve for my comrades who were wounded, went missing or died. Including my best friend.”
My parents taught me to believe in a compassionate, loving God. But how could I believe in a God who allowed millions of my people to be murdered?
In my nightmares, I screamed, seeing myself as a skeletal woman, diseased and starving in a concentration camp. On awakening, my legs often trembled.
To relax on one weekend, I strolled in Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The sun’s warming rays caressed the Blue Gum eucalyptus and Monterey cypress trees. Clusters of moss grew in the shade and the jasmine blossoms offered their sweet fragrance. Clouds hung across the dome of deep blue. In the still air, a red-tailed hawk soared, swung and drifted. Dragonflies twisted and circled in a dance.
Three weeks later, a moaning wind tore leaves from the trees. Foghorns wailed, reminding me of the death, sadness and pain caused by Nazi tyranny.