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Jewish World Review Nov. 23, 1999 /14 Kislev, 5760

Chris Matthews

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After the fall -- Ten years ago, I stood on a mound of dirt overlooking the Berlin Wall. It was the second Saturday that those from the eastern side were permitted to pass through. It was a spectacle I expect never to forget.

"Poor devils," whispered my traveling mate, John McLaughlin, in a stiff-upper-lip British accent worthy of Trevor Howard. John, whom millions of "McLaughlin Group" buffs have never known to whisper on TV, was lampooning the fatigue-clad Thommys proudly ladling out hot java from their jeep cans to the arriving East Germans.

This was still the British sector, after all, and the troops were doing their bit to show that here, in the West, we folk know how to treat those less fortunate.

There were plenty of takers for that coffee that crisp day in November 1989. Before us passed an endless line of captive people getting their first taste of a West they had glimpsed only on television, a cast of characters from an old black-and-white documentary strolling cautiously into a technicolor world.

"This is where 40 years of Stalinism has gotten them," said our West German driver, as he watched the line snake through the wall to an open-backed bakery truck. "Standing in line for biscuits."

But as we explored the other side of the Iron Curtain in those great days, we would find far more reason to blame the Stalinists than their victims. We would learn, too, that the greatest deficiency of the fast-dying Communist order was not "biscuits" but the truth. "This is freedom," said a young student I engaged one cold, rainy night on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, "this standing in an open place arguing openly about such things as democracy, capitalism and socialism."

"Four weeks ago, we couldn't have done it," added a middle-aged nurse. Not free to speak all those post-World War II years, East Germans were also not free to learn.

"Were any Jews killed here?" McLaughlin asked an old Communist guard at Buchenwald, the infamous death camp whose secrets were kept locked behind the Iron Curtain for four decades.

The old Commie, who had agreed to give us the after-dark tour, had told his unexpected visitors how the "Fascists" had executed thousands of Soviet soldiers. He had escorted us along the row of cells where the victims had been kept, each now displaying a fresh wreath honoring a different European Communist Party: one for the Dutch, another for the Belgians, and so forth.

Not once had this proud Party hack, his chest filled with medals, volunteered that the prime casualties of the Buchenwald horrors and crematory ovens had been two-thirds of the Europe's Jewish population. Only when pressed by McLaughlin did he mumble something about the possibility of Jews having been killed at Buchenwald "before 1939," the year of the dreaded Stalin-Hitler pact that made WWII possible.

I had confronted the same blackout of history talking to some young clerks working at the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin. Did they realize, I asked them, that Adolf Hitler had died in his bunker just a few hundred yards from the building where they worked? No. Did they realize that the Third Reich itself had been led from that very spot within view of their window? They hadn't a clue.

"Those who control the present control the past," George Orwell once warned. "And those who control the past control the future."

More than biscuits, the captive Germans -- and Europeans -- of the East 10 years ago won back their knowledge of the past, and with it a say in their future. For that we can celebrate even now.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA