George Starrett was a first cousin of mine, 14 years older than I. During the Second World War he was drafted into the U.S. Army Infantry and shortly thereafter found himself fighting the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. Prior to being drafted he had attended the Art Students League in New York City and at the same time he was an active performing member of the New York City Center Ballet. During the Battle of the Bulge he was captured by the Germans along with thousands of other American infantry and sat out the remainder of the war in a German prisoner of war camp in East Prussia. While in captivity he made a series of drawings of his captors. When he returned to New York at the end of the war my parents drove my two sisters and I into New York City to see him. He showed me the drawings that he had made of his German captors while in the prisoner of war camp and I showed him my drawings, a product of my imagination nurtured by the pictures I had seen in the newspapers at my home in Babylon, Long Island. Even though I was very young at the time, this meeting with my cousin was very important to me. After that meeting I never saw my cousin again. Two years later he was tragically killed in an airlines crash on his way to South America where he was to give a live performance with the New York City Center Ballet.
In the early 1960ís in an attempt to avoid the draft I joined the U. S. Army. I did this at that time because it seemed the right thing to do. I had been raised in a middle class Catholic family whose value system dictated that if you were a male child it was expected that one would, as my mother once said, ď do your duty to God and CountryĒ. After basic training and towards the end of the lengthy advanced infantry training period I found myself thinking seriously about my involvement in the military. All of the training I had received was about killing. The more I thought about it I realized that there was a good chance that someday I would be given orders to kill other human beings. The strong influence of my religious upbringing and my own philosophical attitude towards life eventually caused me to make the decision to petition for a discharge from the military as a conscientious objector. My request was turned down and so I decided to terminate my active participation in the military by going AWOL. I didnít go into hiding or flee to Canada or Sweden like many of the young men of my generation who were facing similar problems, but remained in New York City refusing all orders from the Army to report for duty. Eventually I was arrested, immobilized with leg irons and handcuffs and taken by the Military Police to the U. S. Army stockade at Fort Jay, Governors Island located in New York harbor.
I immediately went on a hunger strike. In the middle of the night shortly after my arrival my life was threatened by an NCO who came into my locked cell and woke me up. I spent two weeks at Fort Jay locked up in a cell in Administrative Segregation. The time spent there was extremely stressful and frightening. My incarceration at Fort Jay ended after two weeks and I was then transferred to the stockade at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Upon arriving I made it clear to the authorities in charge that I was a conscientious objector and that I would refuse all direct orders to participate in any activities related to the military. I was again locked up in administrative segregation and shortly found myself taking a physical exam to see if I would be able to endure 14 days in solitary confinement. I passed with a clean bill of health and was immediately locked up in a cell, confined in total darkness 24 hours a day with no mattress to sleep on and 3 meals each day that consisted mostly of bread, water and boiled potatoes. I endured the 14 days with much difficulty and upon my release from that situation was informed that I was to be court-martialled for being AWOL. I waited approximately four months in pre-trial confinement and was then given a sentence of six months by the jury in my courts-martial. I served all of that sentence believing that I would now to be discharged. Instead I was ordered to report for active duty to an Infantry Company at Fort Dix where orders to send me back on active duty were being processed. I literally felt like I had survived the heat of hell and was now being cast back into the inferno. With the dedicated help of an army psychiatrist and an army chaplain I was able to get those orders changed. I didnít really believe that I would be sent back on active duty, but in the end I did feel as though I was being harassed because of my beliefs as a pacifist. In the end I was told that in order for the army to discharge me I had to sign a waiver stating that I would take full responsibility for what I had gone through over the past year and a half.
Approximately twelve years later the effects of this experience started to show up in my art. This experience of having been incarcerated by the military was for those twelve years securely buried in the safety of my subconscious mind only to be released when I felt strong enough to deal with the trauma of that time. A significant amount of the emotional pain that I had suffered during that time came out in a decidedly conscious way, and that was extremely painful. It still is, even to this day.
My serious interest in the Holocaust began in the late 1960ís when I purchased a book titled Auschwitz by Bernd Naumann. This book introduced me to one of the most important postwar war crimes tribunals held in Germany. The trial held in Frankfurt, Germany charged twenty-two defendants under German penal law for their roles in the Holocaust at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death and concentration camp complex. Over the next ten years I was totally committed to reading everything of importance that had been written about the Holocaust. This included the book that is considered the landmark text of the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hilberg. One of the issues that Hilberg deals with in his book is the role played by organized Christian religions in the Holocaust. One must remember that Germany was a country where the two predominant religions for years had been Catholicism, and Protestantism. In fact Hitler, Josef Goebbels and many other high-ranking Nazis had been raised as Catholics. Scholarly research indicates that at least twenty-five percent of the Schutz-Staffel, the Nazi secret police, were raised as Catholics, and many of the rest were raised in the Protestant church. Because I was raised as a Catholic, and because my fatherís family traced their roots back to Germany, I became even more committed to the study of the Holocaust. As I continued my scholarly research I also referenced the large inventory of high quality documentary films on the subject. Foremost amongst these films was Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, and Night and Fog by Alain Resnais. By the late 1970ís I had spent at least ten years totally immersed in the study of the Holocaust. I am still committed to this study today.