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John Sack (Concluded)

(24 March 1930 27 March 2004)

James Stewart

Nicholls State University

...Two years before the book version of Company C was released Sack published what is arguably his most controversial book, An Eye for an Eye (1993). In fact, its subject was so politically and emotionally sensitive that seven years elapsed from the project's inception to the point that a publisher, Basic Books, would print it. In An Eye for an Eye Sack reports that at the end of World War II between sixty thousand and eighty thousand German civilians, including women and children, died in Polish prisons and concentration camps that were run by Jews.

Sack first began working on the story following a 1986 meeting with Paramount Pictures producer Lynda Obst to discuss a movie deal for the writer's story on the Billionaire Boys Club. At the meeting Obst's secretary told Sack that her mother had been an inmate at Auschwitz during the war and, at its end, had been put in command of a Polish prison filled with former members of the German SS. Over the next two years, Sack interviewed the mother, Lola Potok Blatt,  and others with knowledge of the prison. California published the story, "Lola's Revenge," which had previously been rejected by ten magazines, including Esquire, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, as its lead in the May 1988 issue. Lola, as Sack refers to her in the story, helped promote it on National Public Radio, flying at her own expense to Washington, D.C. The article was included in Best Magazine Articles: 1988 (1989, edited by Thomas Fensch).

However, problems began to mount when Sack started to expand the story for book publication. His agent at the time refused to represent it, as did five others before Sack signed with the Ellen Levine Agency in New York. Of the 12 publishers approached with the book proposal, only Henry Holt accepted it. But then Lola, who had earlier asked Sack to write the book, said she no longer supported it and threatened legal measures to halt it. Sack said he had to spend several thousand dollars on legal fees before he could continue. In February 1990 Holt canceled the book following the death of Don Hutter, Sack's editor. Sack, who had already spent two years on research, including interviews with more than two hundred people and trips to seven countries (several visited more than once), then went $100,000 in debt while doing the project on his own.+

After the book was completed, GQ in 1992 paid Sack $15,000 for "The Wrath of Solomon," the chapter on Shlomo Morel, the Jewish commandant of a post-war Polish camp for German civilians. Sack's 10,000-word article was fact-checked, libel-checked and scheduled for the February 1993 issue, but two days before it was to be sent to the printer, Sack received a call from GQ editor Art Cooper saying that it would be pulled. Cooper told Sack that the magazine's attorneys were concerned about the libel laws in Great Britain, where the magazine would also be distributed.

The article was then rejected by Harper's, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker before The Village Voice published it on 30 March 1993. More than twenty publishers rejected the book, despite descriptions such as "extremely well-written," "extraordinary" and "important." In June 1993 Basic Books bought the manuscript and published it as An Eye for an Eye in November. The book's publication travails were not restricted to the United States. Facing vocal criticism, Piper Verlag, a Munich publisher, canceled the German-language version in February 1995 and destroyed the 6,000 copies which already had been printed. (Kabel Verlag would ultimately publish it.) The Polish edition was also accepted, then canceled, by one publisher before a second finally produced it.

At the outset of his book research in 1989, Sack had traveled to Germany for a reunion of 1,000 people who had lived in the city of Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland), the site of Lola's prison. There, he said, "I learned the first of many astonishing things: that Lola's prisoners weren't SS but German civilians; were German men, women and children, some of them 13 years old, who had been beaten, whipped and tortured and often had died in Lola's prison. Later I learned that very few were ever accused of war crimes." During the next four years Sack amassed more than 300,000 words of typewritten notes from 140 interview tapes, about seven handwritten books of notes and numerous file boxes filled with documents gathered from government archives. The book which resulted from this research describes in hauntingly graphic detail the mistreatment and death of German civilians at the hands of the Office of State Security. Its main characters are Lola, Morel and Pinek Maka, the head of State Security for Silesia.

Sack wrote in An Eye for and Eye that the director of the Office in Warsaw and almost all of the department heads were Jews. Sack argued that Joseph Stalin had actually encouraged the selection of Jews for the Office, which maintained 277 prisons and 1,255 concentration camps for 200,000 German prisoners.

After initial silence by the majority of the popular press, the book quickly came under attack. While not denying that Germans died in Polish camps and prisons at the end of the war, detractors challenged Sack's conclusions, his research methods and his endnote system, as well as his writing style. The criticisms were at times virulent. Among these was a five-thousand-word attack on the book published by the The New Republic in December 1993. Headlined "False Witness," the article was written by a Harvard assistant professor of government and social studies. It described the book as tabloid journalism which "systematically and colossally exaggerates and distorts." Sack was accused of misleading readers and of inaccuracy, and at the conclusion of the review its author wrote, "I have no personal knowledge of John Sack. I know nothing of his motives. I am not saying he is an anti-Semite. For a student of anti-Semitism, however, the methods of John Sack's book ring a bell. Or more precisely, an alarm."

Some of the critical reviews contained accusations which were demonstrably untrue. In a special preface added to the paperback edition, Sack cited several reviews that made false claims about the book's contents. In one attempt to illustrate what it described as inaccuracies, the review claimed that Sack had asserted that 75 percent of the Office of State Security in Silesia were Jewish. Citing November 1945 figures from the Office, the article stated that only 1.7 percent of the 25,600 members were Jewish. In fact, Sack had written that 75 percent of the officers lieutenants, captains and majors in the city of Kattowitz in February 1945 were Jewish. Sack later pointed out in reply that he had also written that Jews began leaving the Office by June 1945 and almost all were gone by that December. He added, "If, as the Harvard professor wrote, there were 438 Jews in the Office as late as November 21, 1945, that's sixty times more than I'd ever mentioned in An Eye for an Eye." Sack, himself a Jew who had once been voted most religious in his Torah class, attempted to publish his response in a letter to the editor of The New Republic, which the magazine refused to run. He then asked to purchase an ad. The New Republic agreed to publish one for $425; however, after the ad had been set in type the magazine reversed its position. The Harvard Crimson also refused to run the ad.

Among the major complaints lodged against the book was the assertion that it drew comparisons between the events it examined and the government-sanctioned genocide which resulted in the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Critics argued that there was no evidence suggesting an organized program of vengeance by the Jewish community in Poland at the end of the war. In point of fact, however, the book made no such claim. "This [the persecution of Germans] was no Holocaust or the moral equivalent of the Holocaust," Sack wrote in the original preface. According to the book, Maka, the head of State Security for Silesia and a Jew, issued standing orders specifically prohibiting mistreatment of prisoners. Sack's story is actually about individuals who fight an internal battle between the teachings of their faith and a natural human desire to seek retribution. The book includes numerous examples of Jews who refused to take part in any attempts to seek vengeance; who, despite the atrocities they had suffered, were in fact horrified by such acts as those committed by Lola and Morel. The Jews who did participate in acts of brutality were often racked by guilt; many were driven to alcoholism. The book arguably is about redemption, not revenge. At the end of the story Lola herself comes to the realization that what she did was wrong, and, at the risk of her own life, protects her prisoners from her Jewish and Catholic guards.

Another argument raised by critics was that the book's subject demanded a more scholarly style of writing than the one Sack used. Jon Wiener wrote in The Nation that Sack "deserves credit for finding and doing the work on an important story, but his blood and guts style is singularly inappropriate, and his lack of skill as an historian is crippling. The publishers who turned his book down were exercising good judgment" (Wiener, 1994, p. 882). Throughout eleven of the twelve main chapters, Sack uses the third-person narrative approach developed during his more than twenty-five years as a literary journalist. In the final chapter and the twelve-page afterword, he switches to the first person. Sack said the tone he used in the book "was the unavoidable tone of a Holocaust memoir," such as that found in Elie Wiesel's Night (published in the United States in 1960).

Although the book indeed lacks detailed discussion of the broad political and social conditions within which the events it depicts took place, it certainly contains personal context for its main characters. The first three of the book's twelve main chapters describe how they, their family members and their friends were brutalized and often killed by the SS. In the preface Sack wrote, "I decided that in An Eye for an Eye, I wouldn't report that a Jew had beaten a German, tortured a German, or killed a German until the reader could understand why the Jew had done it and even could think If I'd been that Jew, I'd have done it myself [emphasis in original]."

Of all the criticisms he received, Sack said he was most surprised by those who denied the accuracy of his story. He noted that its main points have been repeatedly confirmed by others. Among those reports were stories by both 60 Minutes and the New York Times, both of which found independent sources who corroborated his findings. According to the 60 Minutes story, as early as 1946 both the British Foreign Office and the U.S. Congressional Record had reports on the mistreatment of German prisoners at Swietochlowice, the camp run by Morel. The television news magazine quoted a 1945 BFO report which stated that prisoners were routinely starved or beaten to death, or were killed by being forced to stand in neck-deep frigid water. In The New York Times, Craig Whitney quoted a survivor of the camp, who was fourteen years old when he was arrested and placed in Morel's concentration camp, as saying Morel was "as I recall, driven by a burning hatred. . . . When he picked out a prisoner for individual treatment, it usually amounted to a death warrant." In 1996 Poland issued an international arrest warrant for Morel, whom Sack said was "taking refuge in Tel Aviv as late as September 1997." By 1997, according to two unpublished letters Sack wrote to Stewart (on 10 April 1997 and 2 June 1997) some scholars, including Norman Davies and Istvan Deak, had begun to offer public support of Sack's findings.

Sack told Stewart that from the beginning he believed that, while painful, An Eye for an Eye was a story that must be told. He added that while he never set out to be a controversial writer, truthfully telling unpopular stories made him the target of criticism at many times throughout his career. "What's the cause of all this controversy?" he asked. "It's really that we're living in times that are so politically correct that just to report the truth becomes controversial."  References

Dictionary of Literary Biography:

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Books by John Sack