In Berlin the other day the Berlin chapter of B'nai B'rith bestowed the Raoul Wallenberg award on Paul Parks, 77, a Boston civil rights leader who has long been active in Massachusetts politics. The occasion of Parks' honor stems from his claim that he liberated the concentration camp at Dachau, and was, in fact the only African American involved.
Specifically, Parks has talked about how he "broke through the gate" to liberate the legendary German camp, where he saw a "mountain of gold teeth" extracted from prisoners on the way to the gas chamber,
and where Parks, after being spat upon by a Nazi colonel, shot him dead in a rage.
By the way, this is not the only tall tale attributed to Parks. He has claimed, for example, that while in basic training in the Deep South he saw a fellow Black soldier tied to the back of a jeep and dragged to his death by whites, and he has also claimed that while in Leicester, England, he witnessed a race riot in which as many as ten Black GI's were slain, including one who was machine gunned along with his white girlfriend.
Research has shown that none of these stories are true. While many service records are lacking, there is plenty of evidence that Parks was never in half of the locations he describes, other evidence refutes his other claims, and, above all, the evidence is persuasive that he was never anywhere near Dachau.
So why give him an award? It appears that higher moral or symbolic factors are at work. When he received his award, Parks bowed his head on behalf of the "1.2 million African-American soldiers" who fought in World War Two. Rabbi Jack Porter, quoted in a recent Boston Globe series of exposes, was perhaps more explicit: "We needed a black man to verify the fact that there was a Holocaust and to verify the fact that blacks and Jews could work together [….] The Jewish community […] wanted to believe that blacks liberated Dachau."
Regardless of whatever one feels or thinks is necessary, either as a social good, or as moral guidance, surely the confabulation of history should not be one of them. In their anxiety to teach some moral lessons, it appears that some in the Jewish community have unfortunately acted in a way which threatens historical integrity. And, many revisionists suspect, not for the first time.
By pointing this out we don't mean to detract either from legitimate Jewish suffering or from true Black American heroes. In fact, the tradition of the African American fighting man has many high points in World War Two: one thinks of Dorie Miller, assigned as a cook on the USS West Virginia, who nevertheless manned a machine gun and downed at least two Japanese planes the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. One thinks also of the 320 African American ammunition handlers killed in the Port Chicago explosion in 1944: involved in thankless and dangerous work far from the front and glory, they gave their lives for their country as surely as any man storming the beaches in Normandy or the Pacific. With such a record of authentic heroism, Black Americans don't need the imaginative exploits of Parks.
As for the Jewish people, it is doubtful that they need the commemoration of Parks to mark their destruction. Rather, it appears that Parks' utility is more a function of such fractured eloquence as the following: "We can't forget the Holocaust and we can't forget that it happened because if we do that we have pulled the plug of safety on all humankind."
Yet again, what we see here is less history than storytelling designed to teach us a lesson: less Frederick Douglass than Uncle Remus. To be sure, the plantation stories of Joel Chandler Harris have delighted generations of Americans, but no one has ever pretended they were history. The stories, built around the narratives of Uncle Remus, an elderly ex-slave, describe the unforgettable adventures of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and many other fictional characters in the Old South. Although occasionally decried by some as racist, they are more generally recognized, like the animal stories collected by Aesop or the Panchatantra, as highly symbolic fables designed to provide moral instruction and wisdom about the human condition.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with moral meditations on the past. But that is not the task of history. For the sake of its own integrity, the historical record has to be kept clear, otherwise one story just leads to another one, and another to another, until historical truth disappears into a gooey mess of fact and fiction.
"I think he's stuck in a web of lies" was the remark of one retired US lieutenant with regard to the tales of Paul Parks. Yes, the knowing reader might think, just like Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.