Pope forgives Jews — and Putin apologizes for pact

By Jerry Tallmer

For sheer shocking irony, nothing much can beat the opening sentence of “The Man in the Glass Booth,” a novel by the actor Robert Shaw (subsequently made by him into a play).

It was that sentence — “Jesus Christ, the Pope has forgiven the Jews!” — that flashed through one’s mind on being hit by the headline on Page A5 of The New York Times of Tuesday, September 1, 2009 — 70 years to the day of the German invasion of Poland that started World War II.

“Russian Premier,” read the headline, “Calls Nazi-Soviet Pact in World War II Immoral.” Jesus Christ, the Pope has forgiven the Jews.

And the second thing that flashed through my mind, seeing that headline, was my father walking in that heat back across the bus-stop square in Augusta, Maine, a newspaper folded under his arm. It was a drenching hot, hellish hot day, around noon, and the date must have been August 25, 1939, since Google tells us that Ribbentrop and Molotov had done the dirty deed the day before, August 24, 1939.

My father and I were traveling, by bus, from one Maine camp to another Maine camp — from Menatoma, where I had spent three or four excellent summers, to Tripp Lake Camp, which was owned and run by two of my aunts, Cyd and Eva, along with Kitty Stern, the wife of J. David Stern, publisher of the New York Post (before he sold it to Dorothy Schiff).

The trip was broken midway by a 15-minute rest stop at a square in Augusta. I stayed in the bus. My father went across the square to get a newspaper and some Fatima cigarettes. The only paper he could find was William Randolph Hearst’s Boston Herald.

When my hot, stoic father came back and opened the paper to show me the headline — what on the Post would have been called “the wood,” the 3-inch, all-caps, eight-column front-page head — I experienced the worst moment in all my life. On a level, anyway, with the Sunday evening in 1967 on which the telephone rang and it was my college roommate — her lawyer, Craig Kuhn, in Pittsburgh, saying: “Your mother died today.”

I really mean that. “REDS-NAZIS SIGN 10-YEAR PACT,” the headline shrieked, not just all caps but in (add ironies) vivid red. And it was at that moment that I — the young half-assed home-grown New York non-party high-school radical — realized that this world was not at all a nice place, and was probably never going to be one. Our savior of last resort — Lincoln Steffens’s “I have seen the future, and it works” — was just as rotten as all the rest.

David Low, the great British political artist, put it all into a famous cartoon in which Hitler and Stalin are bowing to one another like those two sycophants in a Paul Klee etching, with the corpse of Poland at their feet. “The scum of the earth, I believe,” says Mr. Hitler. “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume,” says Mr. Stalin.

If I had any lingering daydreams about the Soviet Union as the hope of mankind, those illusions were soon to be wiped away by the writings of Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, W.H. Auden and others.

So 70 years after the Nazi-Soviet 10-year nonaggression pact that cleared the ground for the World War II that started one week later, and the invasion of Russia one year later, Russia’s prime minister Vladimir V. Putin — to grease the skids for a diplomatic visit to Poland — announces that the Nazi-Soviet pact was indeed…immoral.

I don’t put that word in quotes because The Times didn’t.

On September 1, 2009, my son Matthew e-mailed me, for the occasion, a poem so titled, one he knows I’ve revered for going on 70 years. Here is one small piece of it:


All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky.

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.


Auden spent many years late in his life trying to expunge, to renounce, the last line there. Most of us choose to keep it in. It may or may not be true, but it is not, in any event, immoral.