Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?
My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making. Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.
I am writing a series of profiles related to the book. This is part six. In earlier profiles, I offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, and a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani. All of those profiles are available further down this page. Here, I am profiling another Holocaust survivor, the last on my list. His name was Eli Pfefferkorn. He was a born and fantastic storyteller. He was a professional provocateur. Nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity. In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name. There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history. Let’s jump into that history:
1) I met Pfefferkorn back in 2008. I had just begun a research project on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Who was the real Wiesel? That was the question I had in mind. How did the persona match the man? I stumbled upon an anti-Wiesel article by the muckraker Alexander Cockburn on his website, CounterPunch. Cockburn had an agenda: to put the torch to Wiesel’s story in Night. The article was downright mean, with echoes of Holocaust denial. Further, Cockburn had an obsession with Wiesel. A Google search on “Elie Wiesel” and “CounterPunch” brought up too many articles, all with incendiary titles. Cockburn’s issue with Wiesel traced to the Levant. Cockburn took the Palestinian side and saw Wiesel as an Israeli extremist. Wiesel never used his public platform to criticize Israel. For that, Cockburn clearly loved to hate Wiesel.
Yet, despite the general derision, sections of Cockburn’s article contained some merit. For instance, Cockburn’s writing introduced me to Pfefferkorn. According to Cockburn, the views cited in his article were “vigorously expressed” to him by Pfefferkorn. To have met Pfefferkorn was to understand Cockburn’s description. Pfefferkorn was a bundle of learned energy.
To Cockburn, Pfefferkorn framed Wiesel as a sell-out. Naturally, I wanted to know more. I phoned Pfefferkorn at his home in Toronto straightaway. My notes from that initial conversation touched on some Pfefferkorn truths. “Curiosity, intuition and cunning” were the words I used to describe his psyche. “Charming and smart, learned,” I continued. “He is very much the camp survivor.”
That last part cannot be understated. Pfefferkorn, like most camp survivors, carried a duality within. His demeanor would change in a heartbeat. He would go from affable and playful to threatening and curt. His worldview would be condensed down to one preoccupation. Sometimes that preoccupation was a person. Wiesel, as an example. Sometimes that preoccupation was a wrong done specifically to him. Sometimes that preoccupation was food. When Pfefferkorn experienced hunger, he would be transformed back to that teenager in the camps. He would shut down all activities in an effort to eat. Once satiated, he would flip back to his more affable self. I gave this duality a label: the Majdanek Syndrome. The effect did not fit into the modern psychological profile of bi-polar behavior. Rather, the effect was a historically based form of survival. Very raw. Very needy. Very animalistic. Very much the camp survivor.
2) Wiesel, it should be noted, suffered his own form of Majdanek Syndrome. For instance, he was litigiousness personified. It’s a little known fact. He had a pugilist of a lawyer on speed dial, back when speed dial was an exception, and he used that line relentlessly. The pugilist on the other end of the line was an Auschwitz survivor named Samuel Pisar. As I traced in my research, Wiesel received a fundamental education from Pisar. Lawsuits asserted control. Lawsuits took back the control lost at Auschwitz and other death camps. For Wiesel, lawsuits became a part of his Majdanek Syndrome. In his case, there was a total preoccupation over perceived wrongs. There was then a way of fighting back.
3) More Majdanek Syndrome. Within the general framework of the disorder, there is a tendency to both idealize the world and to falsify it due to perceived ugliness. To understand, let’s jump into Pfefferkorn’s biography. He was born in the Polish town of Radzyń Podlaski in 1930. He entered the milieu of Hasidism. If not for the events of September 1939 and its aftermath, his trajectory would have gone towards study, and the family business. His name suggested a history. I learned about that history some eight years after first meeting Eli, as I traveled to his home in Toronto upon his invitation.
Pfefferkorn had moved to Toronto in the late 1980s, after he landed a teaching position. Upon arrival, the Pfefferkorns commenced a housing search. Pfefferkorn and his wife, Sarah, bought a condominium in a fine neighborhood near Humberwood Park. The condo, at 151 Pfolkes Court, stood out from the rest of the homes in the neighborhood. The rest of the homes were one-family dwellings. Pfefferkorn’s two-bedroom condo filled a corner of a 15-floor highrise building. Never one to own a house – “too much upkeep, Josepher,” Pfefferkorn explained – Pfefferkorn and family moved to Pfolkes Court. The letter similarity between Pfefferkorn and Pfolkes struck me as comical. Pfefferkorn didn’t see the humor.
By the time I visited, nearly thirty years after the family’s purchase of the apartment, Pfefferkorn’s daughter, Vered, had become an adult, gotten married and divorced, and settled in Silver Spring, Maryland. Pfefferkorn’s wife had contracted Alzheimer’s, gone into a nursing home, and passed away. Pfefferkorn lived alone. Except he was rarely alone. The highrise building on Pfolkes Court included a series of elevators for transporting the residences up to their units. Those elevators served a secondary function: they provided a social setting. Pfefferkorn spent a good deal of time riding the elevators, up and down from the 13th floor, kibbitzing with this person and that. In my three days with Eli, I met the proctologist Bruno, and the editor Markus, and the woman who believes in ghosts, Rita, and the psychologist couple who practiced illegally out of their condo, and Professor Thomkins, who taught English literature at Humber College’s northern campus nearby.
Pfefferkorn, being Pfefferkorn, knew intimate details of the elevator cast of characters. He shared these details with me, immediately after the person departed the elevator. For instance, Rita apparently lived in a furniture-less apartment. The furniture, she believed, attracted the ghosts. No furniture meant no ghosts.
Pfefferkorn’s unit was nicer than I’d anticipated. He employed a “putzfrau,” as he called her, or a cleaning lady. She came often. Sometimes she would come to clean, and sometimes to cook, and sometimes to just pick up after Eli, and sometimes just to talk, or so it seemed. Her name was Erma and she also served a function unknown to her. She provided Pfefferkorn with some sexual fantasy storylines. Pfefferkorn, as will be discussed in more detail soon, kept his libido in full roar. How he was able to do that later in life, I have no idea.
There was no art on Pfefferkorn’s walls. There were books everywhere. There were piles of papers filling his office space, which also served as the guest bedroom. There was perfectly serviceable, though nondescript, furniture. Pfefferkorn, like most men, had his favorite chair. That chair, positioned near the window, looked out toward the park.
Our three days together were spent near that window, or riding the elevator, or walking in Humberwood Park. We both had topics we wanted to talk about. I realized, shortly into my stay, that Pfefferkorn had a proposal to make. I wasn’t there for my sake. I wasn’t there for a visit. I was there as part of Pfefferkorn’s agenda.
I did, however, get Eli to talk about something he never had before. Despite a life as a storyteller, despite the writing of his own memoirs, Eli had never talked about his family history. His daughter, for instance, did not know her grandfather’s first name. Pfefferkorn simply couldn’t talk about it.
Except, in a moment perhaps of candid trust, he did to me. Actually, he talked about borscht. Unknown to most of us in the West, different regions in Eastern Europe favored different borscht recipes. Polish borscht, for instance, was more spicy and more sweet than its counterparts in Lithuania and Belarus and Russia and Romania and Armenia. Polish borscht used more pepper and less vinegar. Someone should do a study.
The Pfefferkorns of Radzyń Podlaski became suppliers to the borscht industry. This occurred hundreds of years before Eli Pfefferkorn came down his mother’s birth canal and out into the world. According to Pfefferkorn, the family took its name from the business. “What was the name before the business?” I asked.
Pfefferkorn shrugged. There wasn’t a family name. If family names grew out of location, like Isaiah Berlin or Jerzy Petersburski, or biblical figures, like Joseph and Abraham, the majority grew out of profession. There was only Pfefferkorn.
The Pfefferkorns were never wealthy. While they may have cornered the pepper market in Radzyń Podlaski, pepper did not have the profitability of either vanilla or safran. Pepper was a cheap commodity. Further, Poland maintained cordial relations with those countries on the trade routes from India through Turkey or the Caucasus and up to Poland. Pepper was accessible. The Pfefferkorns lived in the middle class spectrum. “We weren’t the Potockis,” Pfefferkorn said.
The reference, I later learned, would be like an American saying, “We weren’t the Rockefellers.”
The last Pfefferkorn to sell pepper was Eli’s father, Avraham. The pepper business ended for the Pfefferkorns at the end of 1939. Months later, Avraham Pfefferkorn was shot and killed. What was he killed for? He made a business transaction, illegally. The Germans, along with their Polish sympathizes, had just decreed that Jews could not own businesses. The government of Poland, by the way, made it illegal to even write such a sentence in the year 2018. Those blaming the Poles, even in part, for Nazi atrocity face a heavy fine and a jail term. I’m not going to Warsaw any time soon.
Eli Pfefferkorn didn’t want to talk about his father’s last business transaction. He didn’t want to talk about what happened next. The Germans shot Avraham Pfefferkorn dead on the street. There was a witness. “I was there,” Pfefferkorn said. “I know.”
Silence followed. Pfefferkorn needed a moment to collect himself. I stared out the window, at the park. I thought about fathers dying brutally, and sons watching. I thought about the sea change that produced. The immediate and radical new direction. The unrecovery. Pfefferkorn’s next words then went to the nub of my visit, at least for him. “Will you write about me?” he asked.
“What?” I asked.
“It doesn’t have to be a book,” Pfefferkorn laid out the parameters. “It doesn’t have to be the Gospel According to Eli Pfefferkorn. You could write a fiction. You could create a character based on me. I just want you to use my name and my story.”
What Eli wanted, I realized then, was for a different death than his father. His father died without any sort of memorial. His father didn’t leave a record. Only Eli carried him, and Eli wouldn’t talk about him. Eli wanted to be remembered, and he wanted a colorful memorial. He died in October 2018. Hopefully, in Satan’s Synagogue, I provided a colorful memorial.
Let’s get back to the Majdanek Syndrome. Like all camp survivors, Pfefferkorn recognized two birthdates. The first, naturally, had to do with biology, or when the person came down the birth canal and into the world. The second had to do with camp life. The day the survivor entered the concentration camp universe became a birthdate. Pfefferkorn traced his second birthdate to 1940. He entered that universe through the ghetto of Miedzyrzec-Podlaski. That portal led to the death camp Majdanek, then to the slave labor ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna, then to the Czestochowa labor camp, then a death march to Buchenwald, then to the satellite of Rehmsdorf, then to another death march from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets in May 1945.
Something fascinating happened to this history. When he moved to Israel in 1948, following a period in Britain, Pfefferkorn concocted a false biography for himself. He made himself a flight survivor. According to his false biography, he escaped from Europe at one of the last possible moments, on a 1939 Kindertransport to Britain. This fiction became his standby. He told it to his wife and daughter. He only came clean in the 1980s in America.
Why did Pfefferkorn concoct a fake history? He answered with one word. Pity. To be a survivor in Israel in the years following liberation was to be viewed as a passive, cowardly victim who did nothing to fight the swarm of the Hitler nation tidal wave. “Pity is an ugly word,” Pfefferkorn would answer.
But let’s take a wider look. Pfefferkorn’s fake history highlighted what became known as the Israelization of the Holocaust. The Israelization did not dwell in victimization, in the Jeremiah aphorism of sheep to the slaughter. The Israelization emphasized heroism. The original enabling legislation underscored that dynamic. In 1953, the Knesset created the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. That body created Yad Vashem. The Knesset also passed Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah, or the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.
Upon immigration, survivors were expected to Sabra-ize. Those valued characteristics of Israeli society revolved around the muscular build, tanned, ready, proponents of strength, of action. The Sabra stood in direct opposition to the scholar of the European diaspora. The Sabra didn’t flinch in the face of the enemy. For survivors like Pfefferkorn, the survival mode learned in the camps kicked in. In a way, his Kindertransport story became the denouement to his Holocaust journey. He had learned to survive in the ghettoes and the camps. He called himself a rough elbower. When he immigrated to Israel, he rough elbowed a fake story. That fake story became his preoccupation, his Majdanek Syndrome.
Why did Pfefferkorn come clean in America? The Americanization of the Holocaust contained none of the bravado, none of the musculature of the Sabra. Unlike Israel, survivors didn’t comprise a large part of the overall population. They weren’t needed in the army, or the work force. Their history meant nothing to the national narrative. Survivors then didn’t need to alter their personage to fit their location. The Americanization of the Holocaust followed the traditional Jewish dictate. Be a Jew in your home and a man on the street.
4) More Majdanek Syndrome. In December 2008, only a few months after our initial phone conversation, Pfefferkorn came to New York. Over the course of two interviews, we formed a unique bond. Pfefferkorn, I soon realized, spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies. He saw me as an irony. I won’t go into my personal history here, as this profile is not entitled “Who was the real Brian Josepher?” but suffice it to say that a Colorado kid, like myself, living in New York is most definitely ironic.
Anyway, while our conversations focused on Elie Wiesel, and Pfefferkorn, I had another subject in mind. Years earlier, back in graduate school, I wanted to write about sex-as-fantasy in the death camps. I think the prisoners created a vivid fantasy life. What would they fantasize about? Revenge comes to mind. Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush. But revenge is only the half of it. I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex. I think sex became a preoccupation.
I soon learned, in the 1990s, that any sort of fantasy talk was taboo amongst survivors. Nobody wanted to talk about any subjects related to fantasy, revenge for instance. Starvation, deprivation, slavery: these were the foundational plot lines of the survivors’ narrative. These were the comfort foods, so to speak, as the decades passed and the survivors became a platform presence.
But as Pfefferkorn opened up, sort of, and as we developed a kind of friendship, I touched on the subject that has gnawed at me for nearly thirty years. “What about sex?” I asked Eli. “Do you think that prisoners in the camps thought about sex as a form of revenge?”
“You’re talking about rape?” he replied.
“Yes, rape as a weapon,” I answered. “In the camps, Eli, did you fantasize about raping a kapo, or a German, or anyone with authority? I’m not talking about a sex act. I’m talking about power and control and a way of abusing the abuser.”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Listen, Josepher, why would we fantasize about rape when we could fantasize about pulling the trigger of a gun? Why would we fantasize about ejaculation when we could fantasize about murder?”
“Because murder with a gun has some distance to it,” I answered. “There’s separation. Rape is intensely personal.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he answered.
I knew what I wanted from Eli, and really, it wasn’t rape-as-revenge. I’d gotten sidetracked. I took a moment to think things out. We were sitting at a Starbucks in Harlem (talk about ironies) and I noticed two police officers sitting nearby. Neither of them seemed to notice their surroundings. It dawned on me: cops are typically oblivious to their surroundings. Shouldn’t the opposite exist? Shouldn’t the surroundings be a cop’s total preoccupation? Talk about ironies.
I came back to the subject at hand. “Eli, I want to know what you fantasized about during your imprisonment in the camps.”
“Food,” he answered. “Always food. We were starving.”
“Yes, I understand. But that’s the stock answer. Wasn’t there anything else?”
“Anything else?” he replied. “Food wasn’t enough?”
“I’m not arguing with you,” I said. “And to alter one of your lines, ‘I wasn’t there. I don’t know.’ But, I’m wondering if camp inmates didn’t fantasize about sex.”
Pfefferkorn took a second. His attention went to a napkin, idling on the tabletop. “There was sex,” he said, when he came to it. “A lot of homosexuality. You know we were divided, right, the men from the women?”
My mind at that point made a connection. In my research, I had recently spoken to the survivor Siegmund Kalinski. He’d spoken about “homosexual friendships in camp” and “zärtlichkeiten,” as “caresses were exchanged.”
His reflections caught me off guard but I
wondered, as I spoke to Pfefferkorn, if Kalinski offered a self-reference. Was he admitting to his own behavior? Did he have homosexual relations in the camp
and did that continue later in life?
I also realized that homosexuality was easier for survivors to talk about then sex-as-fantasy. Even if they disdained such a sex act – and most of them did, coming from that generation and reared in an orthodox, homosexuality-as-deviant mindset – they could register such sexuality without being personally touched. Sex-as-fantasy, of course, had a different construct to it. There was a personal involvement.
To Pfefferkorn, I corrected my thoughts. “Not sex per se. Not the act. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in sexual thoughts. Where did the mind go? You were a teenager, Eli. It wouldn’t have been abnormal for you to fantasize.”
Pfefferkorn answered with a dismissal. “I didn’t fantasize about sex. I fantasized about food. I fantasized about potatoes. I fantasized about onions and carrots. I fantasized about Kielbasa.”
The potato reference didn’t strike me in that moment. The sausage reference did. “Kielbasa?” I answered. “Not exactly kosher.”
“Well, what exactly was kosher during the Shoah?”
Food as the total preoccupation: this was the standard line. In nearly every memoir written by nearly every camp survivor, in nearly every interview given over the decades, the storyteller describes the moment. Two prisoners lie in a bunk in a death camp late at night. They’re talking about a Seder table, in whispers. They’re talking about the specific foods on that table. They’re not talking about candles and lighting the lights of Shabbat. They’re not talking about the Kiddush. They’re not talking about the Ha-Motzi. They’re talking about challah. The color, the texture, the way the bread melts in the mouth. They then go into incredible detail about each and every dish on that table.
5) More Majdanek. Back at the Starbucks, I noticed a presence overtake Pfefferkorn. His surroundings closed in on him. All that noise, the hustle of a coffee rush, New York in its relentless ebb and flow, seemed to attack him. I saw Pfefferkorn on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I need to eat,” he said. As I didn’t know the area, we asked the police officers for a “meat” restaurant, as Eli termed it. He wanted steak. They recommended something nearby. The food was terrible, cheap, gristly. Pfefferkorn loved it. He picked up the bones and chewed on them. He ate my bread.
This was all a part of his Majdanek Syndrome, I learned.
Two different meals at two different restaurants over that weekend with Eli, and the visit to a Starbucks, permitted a window into Pfefferkorn’s psyche. Here’s what I noticed. Pfefferkorn picked the tables in all places. He picked a back table, against a wall. He chose his seating place in an instant, with his back to the wall, facing the room. He did not consider his companions’ needs and desires.
Another observation. Walking with Pfefferkorn was another form of the Majdanek Syndrome. He started slowly. It took him awhile, for instance, to zip his coat. But then something kicked in. He picked up the pace. He zoomed. He didn’t talk while walking. He didn’t pay any attention to his companion. His companion had to keep up. If he wanted to say something while walking, he slowed down. Actually, he stopped his forward momentum. He said whatever was on his mind, then he picked up the pace again. He didn’t wait for his companion’s response.
“Where were we?” he asked, over cheap steak.
I had no idea. “Tell me about your childhood,” I said. “Tell me about Poland.”
Pfefferkorn didn’t talk about Poland. He talked about Israel. He immigrated in the spring of 1948. He arrived in the immediate aftermath of independence. I asked why he went after the war. With Israel about to form a nation-state and with war clouds hovering, wasn’t there a call, a pressure, to go to Israel to fight?
“Pressure?” Pfefferkorn responded. “From those in Israel? Yes. In Europe, not so much. I was in England. I was told, ‘You’re a Holocaust survivor, why would you fight in another war?’”
My thoughts drifted to 1967 and the run-up to the Six Day War. I asked about that pressure. “Totally different scenario,” Pfefferkorn responded. “Jews were arriving from everywhere – Europe, America. The pressure was enormous. Israel couldn’t have lost that war. We wouldn’t have survived.”
Who was “we” in Pfefferkorn’s recollection? Israeli Jews? Diaspora Jews? Would there have been an Israel had the Six Day War gone sideways? New research, on the 50th anniversary of the war, suggested a contingency plan of action, had the war looked lost. According to the retired brigadier general Itzhak Yaakov, Israel put in place a “doomsday operation.” That operation called for an atomic device to be detonated on top of a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula. Yaakov’s reference shed some light on Israel’s nuclear program, a long-held secret. Apparently, Israel had atomic capabilities then. But Yaakov commented on the doomsday approach, “Look, it was so natural. You’ve got an enemy, and he says he’s going to throw you to the sea. You believe him. How can you stop him? You scare him.” (William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “‘Last Secret’ of 1967 War: Israel’s Doomsday Plan for Nuclear Display,” The New York Times, June 3, 2017.)
“Where did you serve?” I asked Eli, half-expecting him to say the Sinai.
Pfefferkorn answered with a story. While he served in the Navy, he wasn’t on the call-up list in the spring of 1967. When war broke out, he went to see Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly in Tel Aviv. He stayed for two more Bergman movies, all dealing with themes of God and faith. After the war, a child came up to him on the playground and asked what it was like to operate a submarine. According to Pfefferkorn, he was caught by surprise. In that instant, he looked at his daughter, age six or so. Vered Pfefferkorn winked at her father. Acting as the good father, Pfefferkorn played along with Vered’s tale. But as he interpreted, Vered was embarrassed. While other children were bragging about their fathers as soldiers, Vered’s father watched the Bergman triptych.
6) More Majdanek. Sometime after his visit to New York, Eli called with a proposal. He knew I needed to visit the archives of the Holocaust Museum down in Maryland, to conduct my research. He offered to be my guide. In the 1980s, during the building of that museum, Pfefferkorn held a title of cache. Under the chairmanship of Elie Wiesel, he was the director of research. Back then, Pfefferkorn was Wiesel’s right-hand man. In fact, he was Wiesel’s alter ego. Unlike Wiesel, he could say what he wanted. He had no ambition to be the Man of Conscience, no ambition to win a Nobel, no ambitions to hold a Presidential appointment, no ambition to have people stand when he entered a room, figuratively speaking, and therefore Pfefferkorn was not beholden to an audience. He was the wild card, the schemer, the operator, the rough elbower.
I took Pfefferkorn up on his proposal. For the full story of that trip, in a section entitled “The Pfefferization of History,” please see Satan’s Synagogue. But in that archive, I heard a most surprising line. Hours into the day, I decided to go for a walk in the huge warehouse. I wandered for some time, slowly, just getting some headspace away from the records. Near the bathroom, I came across Pfefferkorn. He was talking to a young intern. Her name escapes me all these years later. She was pretty and tall, and she was interested in the archivist profession. That landed her a position at the warehouse. She did not know a detail about the Holocaust upon arrival. But, having spent some time in the archive, she’d learned certain things, like names of death camps.
Eli had his back to me, but I noticed he inched toward her, almost imperceptibly. He leaned into her, even if she stood a foot taller. When he spoke, his mouth was below her neck. “I survived Majdanek,” he said. “If you’d like, I could tell you about it.”
I walked away at that point. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that Pfefferkorn would use the death camp as a pickup line. Hours later, as I drove Pfefferkorn back to his daughter’s apartment in Silver Spring, I asked if the line worked. “You heard that?” he said with feint surprise. “Yes of course it worked. It always works.”
The intern gave out her phone number. That was Pfefferkorn at age 80, and all the years before and the years after. He was prurient as could be. He slept with his students, his colleagues, the beautiful stranger in the elevator (if she was interested, Pfefferkorn was not about sexual harassment). It was the hedonism in him talking. Maybe it, too, was a part of the Majdanek Syndrome. The preoccupation.
7) More Majdanek. Pfefferkorn broke with Wiesel sometime in the mid-1990s. By a circuitous way of explanation, he told a story. A conference was held at Haifa University with the literary critic George Steiner serving as the keynote speaker. Pfefferkorn and Steiner maintained a professional friendship, as both served the field of literature. Following Steiner’s talk, he and Pfefferkorn stood outside the hall together. According to Pfefferkorn, Wiesel came hobbling out. An injury was bothering him. “He limps like Goebbels,” Steiner remarked.
Such a sinister remark: that was my initial reaction. But then again, wasn’t that Pfefferkorn’s point? Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of betrayal. Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of corruption. Pfefferkorn would accuse Wiesel of turning his back on his core constituency, the survivors. Edging Wiesel up against Goebbels, who unquestionably walked with a limp, played into Pfefferkorn’s accusations. Not only was he trying to be provocative but he could then talk betrayal. Which he did. “It’s close to a tragedy,” he remarked. “By turning against the survivors, he was turning against himself.” Pfefferkorn then threw out a statistic. “He became a eulogist of the dead, but he didn’t raise his mellifluous voice against the wrong done to survivors, thirty-five percent of them below the poverty line in the U.S.”
That statistic came without corroboration. Nor could I corroborate the Steiner commentary. But Pfefferkorn’s point spoke to the fall. He wanted a Wiesel rooted to Holocaust-specific causes and history. He got a different Wiesel, a persona that I termed a “one-man State Department” in Satan’s Synagogue. He couldn’t reconcile the two Wiesels.
But it dawned on me at some point in our time together. Pfefferkorn needed justice. That was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome. That was a part of the slavery experience in the concentration camp universe. Of course, he couldn’t find justice. What was done to him in the 1940s was embedded, engorged, and nothing could cure the infection.
But that didn’t stop Pfefferkorn from trying. He sought justice everywhere he turned. Wiesel, who did indeed want to play world politics, got in Pfefferkorn’s sightlines.
But it dawned on me. Pfefferkorn was Job.
8) Well, let me rephrase. Pfefferkorn was Job, as rendered and reimagined by Elie Wiesel. Back in the 1970s, Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job. As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war. Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed. “Wounded, robbed, mutilated. Certainly not happy. Nor resigned.”
That was Pfefferkorn, for sure. That was the Majdanek Syndrome explained, partially.
Wiesel continued. He rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.” He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall. “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.” He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”
The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included.
Wiesel continued. He imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence. Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty. His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”
The same could be said of all Jews who entered the concentration camp universe and survived, Pfefferkorn and Wiesel included. The guilt of survival, while witnessing the senseless deaths of all those surrounding, could not be overcome. To be a camp survivor was to wade forehead deep in guilt.
Wiesel continued. In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero. “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.” He made his words “quiver.” He made his words “scream.” Words became Job’s rebellion. In words, Job “reversed the roles.” God became the “defendant.” Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”
Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter. Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself. This was Wiesel’s indictment, too. This was Pfefferkorn’s indictment, as well. This was also Pfefferkorn’s indictment of Wiesel.
Wiesel continued. God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question. If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable. Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied. Vindicated. Rehabilitated.” The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”
For Job, such action led to restoration. He recovered all that he had lost. He died an old, satisfied man. For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.” In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.” Wiesel wanted Job to protest further. Wiesel then reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth. “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You? What right have I to speak on their behalf? … Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them. I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”
That reimagined Job, that “fierce fighter” until the end, that justice seeker, that rough elbower, was Pfefferkorn. He continued the trial until the end.
9) More Majdanek. In the immediate aftermath of our visit to the archives of the Holocaust Museum, I drove Eli to Silver Spring and his daughter’s apartment. Unfortunately, our timing was awful. It was late afternoon. I hadn’t considered Maryland traffic during my planning stage. Further, Eli needed to stop for a sandwich before the drive. That put us onto I-95 after five p.m. Essentially, we pulled into a parking lot of an Interstate. It took us almost two hours to drive the usual twenty minutes. I was annoyed, to say the least, but the time proved invaluable, as Pfefferkorn touched on some history that would have been the focal point of my Ph.D. dissertation had I encountered Pfefferkorn back in the early 1990s, while I was a graduate student and looking into the sex-as-fantasy thesis. He talked about a woman named Maddalena Mainz.
In German, Maddalena means magnificent and descends from Magdalene, conjuring Mary of Magdala. For the prisoners of Majdanek there was no escaping her magnificence, her ferocity, and her sexuality.
Maddalena Mainz, according to Pfefferkorn, stalked the death camp. “There was no bigger persona,” he declared. “Himmler himself could have shown up and he would have been overshadowed. She was a rock star.”
Struggling with the wrapping on his sandwich, he looked over at me. “Who is the greatest female rock star of all time?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. Then I listed some names that popped into my head. “Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Debby Harry.” Then a name dawned on me: “Tina Turner.”
Pfefferkorn replied, “Roll ‘em all into one and she wouldn’t come close to the seductive capability of Mad Mainz.”
“Mad Mainz?” I interrupted.
“That’s what we called her,” Pfefferkorn answered. “She was a sadist. Whips, a holster with a pistol on her hip, the most outlandish cruelty streak. And at the same time, Josepher, she made your heart race.”
“How is that possible?” I asked. “I mean, she was a psychopath, right? She was a murderer. She stalked her prey. They were defenseless. How does attraction get conflated with sadism?”
“You would understand if you saw her,” Pfefferkorn replied. “She transcended what you call a psychopath. She was sex walking.”
Here’s what we know about Mainz up to this point in history: a few Majdanek survivors referenced her, in sparse detail. Her history essentially went missing. However, with the uncovering of new records, and with Pfefferkorn adding color, we can now track her story. Let’s start with the big picture and work our way inside.
Majdanek, in a suburb of Lublin, like Dachau in a suburb of Munich, was established as a POW camp in 1941. In March 1942, Heinrich Himmler reclassified Majdanek as a killing center. The previous German policy of “evacuation” of the Jewish population gained a macabre word: “liquidation.” Majdanek joined three other camps specifically built for liquidation purposes: Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. The means of murder was gas, Zyklon B, and mass shootings by firing squad.
How many Jews died in Majdanek? Originally, Polish researchers working at the end of the 1940s placed the dead around 350,000. That number fell to 235,000, as the site became a museum with a crack research arm. Today, the death toll wades around 80,000.
Majdanek stopped operation in July 1944, with the Soviets nearby. But, unlike Auschwitz, the Germans did not have time to destroy records and infrastructure. They fled. When the Soviets arrived, they found a well-preserved camp. News of Majdanek filled the wires and newsreels. For a moment, it became the epicenter of the Holocaust.
That didn’t last long. Six months later, the liberation of Auschwitz took place and, then, camps in Germany began to fall. American soldiers rushed into places like Dachau and Buchenwald and, most famously, a satellite of Buchenwald called Ohrdruf, where General Eisenhower visited with cameras in tow. Majdanek lost its place. Further, the records disappeared. We now know that those records traveled east. The conquering Red Army took them back to Moscow and apparatchiks buried them in boxes and stored them in a basement. If some of those boxes are now being opened, with more to be opened in the coming years, one box in particular came to my attention.
This is an instance when some personal history mixes with much wider history. On a trek to Russia in December 2016 – I went in a research capacity, as I had information that a former CIA operative with personal knowledge of the dealings behind the October Surprise of 1980 was holed up in a Siberian town, but more on that in a future book project – I stayed in Moscow for a few days. There, I met up with my first girlfriend, who went to Russia to manage an orphanage back in the 1990s. She stayed. Today, she runs a non-profit that administers to orphanages all over Russia and the ex-Soviet Union. She listened to my research on the death camps in Poland during World War II and suggested a contact. That person worked in the Russian State Library. That person, whose identity cannot be revealed for fear of compromising his or her safety, opened a box of documents on Majdanek. Apparently, those records are stored somewhere in the basement complex. The files of Maddalena Mainz, and other dossiers, were passed to me.
Who was Maddalena Mainz? She was born in the German town of Magdala. Her ancestors, though, originally came from Russia, and that language served as the language of the home. Her ability to speak Russian would become an important part of her history, a gateway so to speak.
Her ancestors settled in the Rhineland town of Mainz, adopting the town name along the way. The Napoleonic wars left the economy in tatters, and the family decided to make a move to more fertile farming ground. They crossed east in 1819 to the town named after the Jesus disciple near Weimar. If that explains her name, experiences during that crossing might help to explain why she became the Mad Mainz of Majdanek. Her ancestors crossed from Mainz to Magdala through the kingdom of Bavaria. They entered the town of Würzburg, where they encamped for the summer. That summer saw the Hep Hep pogrom with Würzburg as its epicenter. Maybe something of that pogrom entered the DNA structure of the Mainz family. For if we spin this story one hundred and twenty-three years later, we find Maddalena Mainz entering the SS Aufseherinnen. As part of the SS Waffen, some 3,500 women served as camp guards all over the wider Reich.
Mainz’s training began at the Ravensbrück camp. There, she met the infamous doctor, Karl Gebhardt. The key markers of his personality – the fundamental disbelief in the sanctity of human life, the racial superiority, the drive to lord over others, the sexual promiscuity – can be found in her. Mainz must have become some kind of protégé. She also gained a reputation there as a “sexual deviant,” so perhaps there was a sexual relationship between the two. Certainly, Mainz had sexual relations with multitudes, as did most SS stationed in camps. Their superiors encouraged sex as both recreation and procreation of the Nazi ideal.
In Mainz’s case, there were multiple abortions. She seemed to use sex as her weapon, a power grab, and her first targets were SS officers. At Majdanek, that would continue. She may have also taken her “sex walking” further afield. Did she sleep with the prison population, both men and women? The “sexual deviant” classification suggests so.
Mainz arrived at Majdanek during its POW classification. That made sense, given her Russian language background. She gained enormous power during the camp’s reorganization to death camp. She became the matriarch, and the starlet. Pfefferkorn remembered, “I caught sight of her in my first days in the camp.” That would have been in April 1943. “I remember my first roll call. Hours passed and we just stood there. If someone stepped out of line, that was it. You would be shot. Then a woman in an SS uniform rode by on a bicycle. I would later learn that this was a regular routine. She liked to ride her bicycle during the roll calls, when everyone was watching. She didn’t wear underwear. She wore a skirt with a slit cut up high, into her hip. Is there a name for something like that?”
“I don’t know exactly,” I replied. “A peek-a-boo?”
Pfefferkorn nearly choked on a pepper. He tilted his head back, clearing his throat. “Well, you get the picture,” he said. “You could see all the way up into her softer regions.”
“Was that weird for a prisoner?” I asked. “I mean, I’m sure you wanted to stay far away from her. Yet, at the same time, from what it sounds like, she set the camp on fire.”
“I would daydream of her,” Pfefferkorn told his story. “I would imagine the two of us, alone, in some private corner. I would imagine taking that slit of her skirt, the peek-a-boo, and ripping it into shreds. I was thirteen then, bar mitzvah age. The image got the best of me. I felt guilty. She was responsible for thousands of deaths and I daydreamed about her. I wasn’t the only one.”
Guilt. Sex-as-fantasy produced an overwhelming sense of guilt. This example had to do with a pinup girl, so to speak, a seductive overlord. But let’s consider smaller fantasies, fantasies with more common women in mind. In the concentration camp universe, where murder was all-surrounding and always closing in, wouldn’t the momentary pleasure associated with those fantasies lead to guilt? Wouldn’t that then be shunted to a corner of the survivor’s mind and get buried under the layers of more acceptable behavior? Was talk about sex-as-fantasy for the survivor too revealing of behavior, too self-accusatory, too searing?
Pfefferkorn looked down at the sandwich on his lap. I’ve never seen anyone look so lost. That image has stayed with me since. Here was a man with a raging libido. Here was a man who would go to lengthy extremes for sex. Here was a man who used a death camp as a pickup line. And yet, the guilt of a fantasy left him emasculated. Pfefferkorn, I realized, had a psychache. That, too, was a part of his Majdanek Syndrome. But maybe that look could best be described as the Mad Mainz effect. She emasculated men in the archaic sense. She left them castrated. Even to fantasize about her had a sense of castration to it.
The Mad Mainz effect, though, did not prevent the human side from showing. Guilt or no guilt, psychache or no psychache, she left the imprint of a rich fantasy life on Pfefferkorn the prisoner. She made him yearn, and imagine. In that way, she humanized him. It sounds strange. Here was a sadist. Here was an overlord with no sensitivity for those around her. Yet, her presence sparked sexual fantasy, and somewhere in that mix, Pfefferkorn the prisoner could be Pfefferkorn the teenager, Pfefferkorn the lust.
10) A sad thing happened at Pfefferkorn’s memorial service. Well, maybe not a sad thing. Maybe something ironic. Pfefferkorn blasted his eulogizers, while he was alive of course. To me, and perhaps to me alone, he called those men “placebos.” Notably, he did not know that those men would go on to be his eulogizers.
Let me explain. I did not attend the memorial in Toronto. I was in Israel. A week before Pfefferkorn’s death, we talked on the phone. He had lost the power of his voice, I noticed. I had to strain to hear him. I had to press the receiver of the phone hard against my ear. He wished me a good trip and we said goodbye. Those words would be our last.
From Jerusalem, I scanned the list of speakers at his memorial. They made me guffaw. I knew most of them, and I heard Eli’s voice in my head, telling me that the lot of them suffered from “the placebo effect.”
What was “the placebo effect?” Back during our first meeting in New York, Pfefferkorn told a tale. God was building the human race. All of humanity stood before Him, in a line. His assistant stood in front of a cauldron, stirring the mix within. “These were the brains,” Pfefferkorn described. “One by one, people walked by. The assistant poured a heaping ladle of brains into each cranium. Quickly into the proceedings, the assistant realized that they were running out of brain matter fast. ‘What should we do?’ he asked God. God replied, ‘Get another cauldron. Fill it with placebo.’ The assistant did as told. Less than ten percent of humanity got the brains. The rest live under the placebo effect.”
Pfefferkorn spent his post-Holocaust life identifying ironies. His memorial service would have been his last. Certainly Pfefferkorn would have put himself near the front of the line, as God’s assistant doled out brain matter. He would have received a heaping ladle. His eulogizers would have received the placebo. In Pfefferkorn’s way of seeing, his big brain would have been eulogized by those inert substances.
Had Pfefferkorn listened to the eulogizers at his own memorial service, he would have sought justice. Justice as remembrance. That was Eli Pfefferkorn. That was his Majdanek Syndrome.
One thought on “Who was the real Eli Pfefferkorn?”
Loved loved loved this chapter. Borscht–my mother made it from scratch. Delicious cold with warm potatoes and sour cream, of course. Totally Russian–not Polish. I’m thrilled the Polish Prince warmly welcomed the expelled Spanish Jews in 1492, but after that high period ended, Poland sunk into the muck and mire of endless persecutions, including the death of your rabbi great great grandfather (on my mother’s side), who was dragged through the streets tied to a speeding wagon. That country is a pitiful hole (except for Chopin, of course).
Saffron–correct spelling. I should know, I’m allergic to it.
Job story–wonderful update.
And this Pfefferkorn character–could you have invented him? No. This is real larger than life. Fabulously rich exploration with humor, sorrow, irony, and fascinating historical detail. You could write a play about him.
I just love your ironies. Funny. And I love you.
Susan Josepher, Ph.D. Consultant Art Education
Senior Lecturer Otis College of Art and Design
Professor Emerita Department of Art Metropolitan State University of Denver