By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Leon Uris
Narrated by: John Lee
In 1970, “QB VII” is acclaimed as a page turning best seller. It is the story of a libel trial against an author for naming a knighted Lord as a Nazi collaborator. Among other things, it is a parable about morality and redemption. The books fame is enhanced by a mini-series aired on ABC in 1974. The author, Leon Uris, had been sued for a similar libel accusation in his first best seller, “Exodus” (see Dering v. Uris). The title, “QB VII”, is an allusion to Queens Bench VII.
The story is about the trial of a Polish surgeon who runs a surgical department in a Polish concentration camp in 1943. The story begins after the war with Dr. Adam Kelno being held in a British prison while Poland is requesting extradition of Kelno for medical experimentation and abuse of concentration camp prisoners.
Kelno’s principal accuser is Dr. Mark Tessler, a Jewish prisoner and fellow surgeon in the prison camp. Tessler testifies that Dr. Kelno victimized concentration camp prisoners, particularly Jewish prisoners that are experimented on at the direction of SS leaders. Kelno argues that Tessler is a liar. No corroborating evidence (neither witnesses or records) is found to support Tessler’s accusations.
Uris prepares the reader/listener for the ending of the story by having one of the British interrogators suggest Dr. Kelno is hiding something. However, after two years of imprisonment, the English courts deny Poland’s extradition request, and the doctor is released.
Kelno fears for his life because of Poland’s aggressive extradition attempt, and Tessler’s damning testimony. Kelno secretively flees with his family to Borneo to begin a practice treating local natives and colonial British overseers. The natives resist his help because of their belief in witch doctor’ traditions of health care and medical treatment. Over time, Dr. Kelno and his wife gain the confidence and appreciation of the natives. Kelno reputation rises in the colonial medical administration of the region.
Kelno’s stature grows to the point of being knighted by England for selfless service in the colony. Kelno raises a son with his wife who becomes a favorite of local natives. As Kelno’s reputation rises, he eventually returns to England to begin a practice in a small community near London.
Uris then introduces a new character, an unorthodox Jewish author who is a young successful writer and becomes a sought-after playwright for the movies. However, this writer longs to return to writing and become a noted author of Jewish history. After milking the movie industry with a work of pulp fiction, Abraham Cady dedicates time to researching and writing what becomes an acclaimed best seller titled “The Holocaust”. This event sets the table for a libel case because it reveals Kelno’s role in a Polish concentration camp. What makes Uris’s story revelatory is the complexity of guilt and redemption for unpunished crimes, and the tenuous nature of morality.
Half of Uris’s story builds Dr. Kelno into a legend. Kelno provides selfless duty to his patients and the medical profession after the war. He seeks no fame, none of the accouterments of wealth, raises one son and inspires his son’s best friend to become a doctor for the natives of Borneo; while later settling into a life of obscurity in a small English community. In contrast, Abraham Cady uses his youth to perfect his writing skill, join the military as a WWII pilot, and marry a nurse who cares for him after a disastrous plane crash. After recovery, Cady chooses to live the life of a profligate, cheating on his wife, and prostituting his skill as a playwright.
However, the writer in Cady reaches a point of self-awareness that compels him to author something important. This point leads to the publication of “The Holocaust”. From Cady’s research, the accusatory testimony of Dr. Mark Tessler is found and the book references Dr. Kelno and his role as the Polish concentration camp’s medical director. Dr. Kelno’s son’s best friend convinces Kelno that he should sue for libel. Kelno had been found not guilty of any misdeeds when Poland tried to extradite him from England after the war. It seems he had been unfairly imprisoned for two years, investigated, and found innocent because of lack of corroborating evidence.
The suit is drawn. Cady insists his research is accurate and refuses to retract his findings. The case goes to the Queen’s Bench VII for trial. This is thirty or more years after the war. Cady is defended by one of the best lawyers in England with payment for services made by an English aristocrat (one of Cady’s lovers), and an obscurely identified Jewish interest group.
The trial reveals Dr. Kelno’s guilt. The complexity of the guilt is in Kelno’s penance by being a better person after the war. It does not absolve his quilt but it makes him something less than a monster. One is confronted with what he/she would do in a similar circumstance of war. Would you say no to a supervisor that tells you to castrate someone if you believed you would be killed? Stanley Milgram’s experiments show that normal human beings can be driven to kill other human beings for no other reason than their acceptance of someone else’s authority.
Kelno may have been an anti-Semite. Poland is noted for anti-Semitism just as America is noted for Black discrimination. Is Kelno less human because of his acculturation? In a perfect world, yes, but who lives in a perfect world? Kelno is despicable. The Ku Klux Klan is despicable. However, when any person is classified as something other than human, classifiers condemn themselves to inhumanity.
There are so many questions raised by Uris’s story. How brave are you? Would you risk your life to save someone else’s life? Would you kill someone if you were told by the government it is your duty to kill another? Is their redemption in good works? A judge can sit in a chair and think what his/her answer should be, but any human in a circumstance of life or death can only answer the question with his/her action in the now. There are few winners in Uris’s story. There are many losers.