Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.
I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.
At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.
What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”
As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.
Fainstein considers Sassen a good friend. She even had Willem Sassen to dinner (a “charming elderly gentleman,” as she recalls). Yet Sassen didn’t tell her about his history. Only later, in part through reading about Eichmann Before Jerusalem, did Fainstein, who is Jewish, come to appreciate its significance. “I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”
To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.
Update (11 pm)
Just because, judging by some of the early comments over at Crooked Timber, I want to avert a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.