Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Diaries - One View

The Diary of Che Guevara:  Bolivia – November 7, 1966 to October 7, 1967;
Diary of BergenBelsen – 1944-1945, Hanna Levy-Hass

Diaries capture a feeling of reality that fiction and even non-fiction do not.  They are not ‘crafted’ documents for the most part, but details of daily or monthly life that might slip through the fingers of memory.  Certainly, in the case of Hanna Levy-Hass, the conditions in the camp worked to destroy memory. Bergen-Belsen, while not an extermination camp but a ‘work’ camp, was, as she put it, ‘extermination by other means’ – hunger, fatigue, sickness, theft, brutality, crowding, pettiness.  Levy-Hass’s diary is more intermittent – some entries cover an entire month, while Che’s are almost daily.  Her entries are more an interior monologue – not so much specific events as generalizations, attempting to keep a humanist consciousness about her in conditions of total horror.  Che’s are a dispassionate description of each day’s trials and successes on the paths of the guerilla – a mostly military analysis.    

Levy-Hass was also a communist.  She grew up in Belgrade, a ‘Yugoslav’ working-class Jew, speaking Serbo-Croatian ('Yugoslav"), and becoming part of the Yugoslavian Communist Party lead by Tito.  She worked with the partisans in her small area of Bosnia but made the fatal mistake of listening to the pleadings of reticent, petit-bourgeois Jews who urged her not to go into the mountains permanently, as their community would suffer reprisals.  Because she listened to them, she was swept up by the Gestapo along with the rest. 

The main mystery of the Holocaust is why there was not more widespread resistance.  It can only be laid at the feet of the rich and middle-class Jews who for the most part counseled patience, non-resistance and even collaboration. In Bergen-Belsen, this domination of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois Jews continued.  The political prisoners were isolated in a special area, so it seems they were unable to affect the rest of the camp.   Levy-Hass clearly points to one of the Jewish ‘leaders’ in the Bergen-Belsen camp, a ‘former representative of the Swedish match trust in Yugoslavia,’ who fought against her ultimately successful attempt to divide food equally and not to pay bribes for food.  Some Jews worked in privileged sections of the camp and completely forget about the conditions of the vast majority.  She points out that the men in the camp were the worst, while the women at least had to consider the children. Levy-Hass:  “For too long, personal pleasures and convenience have been at the center of these people’s lives, to the point where privations become unheard-of and tragic things, and self-denial is unthinkable.  As for self-discipline, it is an unpleasant novelty that they cannot grasp and that they only accept as necessary for other people.” 

Levy-Hass worked as a school teacher in the camp, trying to keep the children in touch with something humane.  This with scraps of paper and a few books.  However, the camp gets worse and worse as the war comes closer.  The Nazi head of Auschwitz, Kramer, is eventually transferred from Poland to Bergen-Belsen as the Soviet Red Army advances.  Any pretence at feeding the prisoners ended.  Eventually, they shipped the few remaining prisoners on a train, and Levy-Hass escaped while looking for potatoes at a stop.  She meets a Red Army officer and she finally gets some real food. 

Levy-Hass moved back to Belgrade, but no longer felt comfortable even in Tito’s Yugoslavia, which at that time did not concern itself with the Holocaust.  Her parents, other family members and most friends were all dead.  While not a Zionist, she eventually moves to Israel in 1948, though she could not find a teaching job there due to being a member of the Israeli Communist Party.  She stopping being an official Communist in the 1970s, and became a socialist feminist.  Yet, like many eastern Europeans, she and her husband retained a fondness for what the people of the USSR did by liberating them from the Nazis and their allies.  Levy-Hass leaves Israel for Europe and Paris in disgust after the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacres, carried out with the cooperation of the Israeli military. While always hoping to return to Belgrade, Yugoslavia is torn apart by ethnic and imperialist civil war in the 1990s.  As she told her daughter, an activist who works for Palestinian rights, “All my worlds have been destroyed.” 

This diary was first published by Ramparts magazine in 1968, with a fiery introduction by Fidel Castro.  It is missing a few days and there are certain illegible words, but the majority of the document survived destruction by the Bolivian Army and CIA when taken by the Bolivian Minister of the Interior and given to Castro.  This is an austere and grim book, tough to a fault, and, given what happened, full of foreboding.  Che traces the development of his guerilla band from a trans-national conglomeration of Bolivians, Argentinians, Cubans and Peruvians who never lost a fight - until they did.  The last entry does not show that Che really understood that they were surrounded or trapped. 

The betrayal of the Bolivian Communist Party under Mario Monje is here clearly laid-out.  While initially promising to help the insurrection, Monje cut ties and did not allow any aide or support. Monje did this with the backing of the bureaucrats of the USSR, though this is not in the diary.  (The book, “Killing Che,” a fictional account based on research, is one among many that clearly shows the Soviets sabotaging Guevara.)  Che’s guerilla force initially had about 40 members, but at the end, was down to 17 due to various reasons.  No reinforcements arrived, no recruiting was done from among the Bolivian peasants and the groups were split for a long period of time.     

The diary concerns everyday details like butchering animals to eat; paying peasants for services or goods; hacking trails through jungle or up cliffs; crossing rivers on rafts, setting ambushes; small battles, arranging the movements of the vanguard, the center guard and the rearguard; hiding weapons and food in caves, taking prisoners and stripping them to their underwear, getting lost, arguments, sickness, injuries and Che’s partially-treated asthma.

Through all this, Guevara never loses faith in what he’s doing.  Yet at the end of each month, he adds up the strengths and weaknesses of the guerilla and, while many positives are listed, the ominous negatives don’t change for the better.  There seems to be no plan other than wandering around the mountains and jungles and winning battles, hoping that the guerilla could destabilize the government of General Barrientos.  Barrientos, as was typical for many years in Latin America, came to power in 1964 through a CIA-engineered coup against a democratically-elected government.  Barrientos spoke Quechua, being of partial Quechua background, and thus had more support among peasants than would be normal.  There is unrest among the leftist miners at Siglo XX, and Barrientos massacres them, killing 30 on June 24, 1967 when they came out in support of the guerillas. Yet ultimately a contract is signed, and the miners go back to work.  So no mass support develops across Bolivia for the guerillas, unlike what happened in Cuba.

This diary, like Levy-Hass, is a unique historical document, written on a subject of deep interest to revolutionaries everywhere.  We can reflect that the U.S. treated Latin America as its backyard for a 100 years, intervening, overthrowing and undermining at will.  Today, almost the whole continent has rejected this neo-liberal economic and military platform. (See review of "Secret History of the American Empire," by John Perkins, below.) Yet the guerilla campaign in Bolivia in 1966-1967 was just part of a continent-wide war that still goes on.  Today, the U.S. Obama administration is once more preparing to undermine Venezuela, stationing thousands of troops in Columbia for a possible invasion of Venezuela.  Hillary Clinton’s “State Department” endorsed the recent military coups in Honduras and Paraguay against left-populists and spent much money trying to oust the Ecuadorian left-populist Rafael Correa, failing again.  The criminal boycott of Cuba continues.  The U.S. is still the main enemy of peasants and workers all over Latin America, non-withstanding the soothing dulcet tones of Obamaite ‘reasonableness,’ a song only a fool would believe.

And I bought both books at Mayday.
Red Frog
March 17, 2013

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