Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Great Escape

One obituary stood out in today’s New York Times. The first paragraph reads:

“Michael Seifert had settled into a quiet retirement in Vancouver, British Columbia, living in a little white stucco house, gardening in the backyard. A former lumber mill worker, he had a seemingly pristine, if prosaic, background.”

I do not make a habit of reading the NYT obituary section, as if it were equable with the “International” or “N.Y. Region” sections. But something stood out about this particular obituary, as most obituaries in the New York Times do. These are not commemorations or, more aptly described, summaries of a life lived by the local grocer (however important the local grocer’s life may assume in our own quotidian lives), but notices of the deaths of more public, notable, renowned, and sometimes infamous personages.

Seifert’s obituary ranks among that last category.

Michael Seifert had a secret life, a life of the past that I force myself to believe he must have lived a thousand times over in the days that followed, though I know I am wrong. Seifert—I just cannot bring myself to use the designation “Mr.” before his surname—distinguished himself early in life by raping, torturing, and murdering in the northern Italian town of Bolzano where the Nazis erected a concentration camp which served as a labor camp for some, and a brief stop on the way to Auschwitz for others.

Seifert, a.k.a. Misha, “The Beast of Bolzano,” must have engaged in a whole lot of rape, torture, and murder to have earned that nickname, though the obituary notes he was “only” convicted in absentia by a military tribunal in Verona for 9 murders. Nine murders too many, though the über-rationalist amongst us may weigh 9 murders against 6 million and issue a shrug of the shoulders as if that accounting indicates something important, something exonerating at worst or mitigating at best. {If it interests the reader, the NYT briefly recounts how he murdered a pregnant woman, a woman, and a boy; there seems nothing “ordinary” about his methods, that is, no mere bullet to the head eradicated those three lives but acts much more…intrusive.} That trial in 2000 eventually led to extradition proceedings between Italy and Canada, which he lost in 2008. Seifert was subsequently shipped to an Italian military prison at the age of 83. There, he died at the age of 86.

The obituary’s author no doubt carefully selected his prose to introduce his subject and establish a tone of ordinariness, though the reader cannot ignore the screaming headline, “SS Guard at Camp in Italy” dies. Hannah Arendt very famously tried to dispel the notion that mass bureaucratic murder—the sort engineered by the Nazis and Soviets, and replicated by myriad others—was a manifestation of pure evil, but rather could be accomplished by “willing executioners” precisely because of the sheer ordinariness of the enterprise, the product of habit, routine, schedules, division of labor, and all of the other trappings of bureaucratic life. Faced with ordinariness, one simply was driven (as she argued with regard to Adolf Eichmann) by thoughtlessness. By definition, habit and routine are not shaped by creativity and self-expression, but rather by a certain mechanization of doing.

Gardening, in contrast, is an exercise of self-expression and creativity, of thoughtfulness and care. Seifert retreated to the garden later in life, but that seems but an extension of another form of self-expression—a decidedly unsocial, nasty, brutish, violent, unforgivable form of self-expression. The garden of his early life was the camp; self-expression came not in the form of design and arrangement, but through torture and invented forms of it (again, read the obituary). Ordinariness restrained him; he could not live according to the dictates of bureaucratic prescription. His self overcame his position.

Seifert apparently yearned for creative (I use the term broadly) outlets, which so awfully was driven by what seems to my non-clinical eyes a particular sexual pathology. The obituary notes he was convicted and imprisoned early in his SS “career” at Bolzano for sexually assaulting a female SS guard. The Nazis abhorred dissention in the ranks—a dissention for which he was punished and incarcerated, but permitted unlimited violence against “the Other.”

I’ve given this Beast of Bolzano too much public space, and so must, my conscience dictates, stop. Yet intellectually I remain arrested by the juxtaposition of ordinariness (“gardening in the backyard”) and the extraordinariness of his crimes (poking out eyes with his fingers); the parallelism in his life between the actual garden, space of life, and the metaphoric garden of death; and the ostensible disconnect between the forms of his self-creative expression.

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