Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Classic Quotable: Herman Wouk on “we make no record of religious affiliation”

Tuesday, December 22nd 2015
In Herman Wouk’s celebrated 1971 novel,The Winds of War, there’s a memorable scene set in 1939.  Poland has fallen to Germany, and Leslie Slote, an American Foreign Service Officer, is leading a group of American citizens – neutrals -- leaving the conquered nation.  Their train passes through territory occupied by Germany.  The other American characters in the scene are Byron Henry, a Navy reserve officer, and his fiancée Natalie Jastrow.

The SS man turned to Slote. "I am to collect the American passports." His tone was brisk and cool, his blue eyes distant, almost unfocussed on the Foreign Service man. "Let me have them, please."

Slote was very pale. "I'm reluctant to surrender them, for obvious reasons."

"I assure you it is quite routine. They are to be processed on the train. They will be returned to you before you arrive in Konigsberg."

"Very well." At a motion from Slote, an assistant gave him a thick portfolio, which he handed to the man in black.

"Thank you. Now your roster, please."

The assistant held out three clipped sheets. The SS man glanced through them, and then looked around. "No Negroes in your party, I see.  How many Jews?"

Slote took a moment to reply. "I'm sorry, but in our passports we make no record of religious affiliation."

"But you do have Jews." The man spoke offhandedly, as though discussing doctors or carpenters.

"Even if there were Jews in the party, I would have to decline to answer. The policy of my country on religious groups is one of absolute equality of treatment."

"But nobody is suggesting that there will be inequality of treatment. Who are these Jews, please?" Slote looked silently at him, touching his tongue to his lips. The SS officer said, "You have mentioned your government's policy. We will respect it. The policy of my government is to maintain separate records where Jews are concerned. Nothing else is involved."

Byron, a couple of paces forward from the group, wanted to see how Natalie and Hartley were behaving, but he knew it would be disastrous to glance at them.

Slote did look around at the whole party in a glance of caution, appeal, and great nervousness. But he produced a calm professional tone when he spoke. "I'm sorry. I just don't know if anybody here is Jewish. I'm not personally interested, I haven't asked, and I don't have the information."

"My instructions are to separate out the Jews," said the officer, "and I must now do that." He turned to the Americans and said, "Form a double line, alphabetically, please." Nobody moved; they all looked to Slote. The SS man turned to him. "Your party is in the custody of the Wehrmacht, in a combat zone under strict martial law. I call this to your attention."

Slote glanced out toward the waiting room, his face harried. In front of several parties — the Swiss, the Rumanian, the Hungarian, the Dutch — a few miserable Jews already stood separated, heads bowed, with their suitcases. "Look here, for your purposes you can assume we're all Jews." His voice was starting to shake. "What next?"

Byron heard a shrill woman’s voice behind him.  “Now just a minute.  What do you mean by that, Mr. Slote?  I’m certainly not a Jew and I won’t be classified or treated as one.”

Continue the scene on page 204!  In the memorable 1983 television miniseries that starred Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Victoria Tennant, and John Houseman, Slote was played by David Dukes, Natalie by Ali McGraw, and Byron by Jan-Michael Vincent.

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