While in Prague recently, friends and I toured the Jewish Quarter. We stood among thousands of crooked and wilting headstones dating back to the 15th century. We silently absorbed the names of the 80,000 written in simple script upon wall after wall: Prague Jews who never returned home. We toured the Spanish Synagogue and meandered through a well documented history of Judaism within the city.
I grew up Catholic, but twenty years in New York City exposed me to almost as much Jewish culture as the Catholic traditions I grew up with. But more than my exposure and familiarity with Jewish tradition is a human need to be reminded of the atrocities we are capable of inflicting upon one another. It is uncomfortable. As it should be. Confrontation should be uncomfortable, like a tattoo inked upon our conscience.
It should serve as a reminder.
I got mired down in detail, particularly the photographs. Families, yellow stars proclaiming Jude pinned to their lapels, smilingly going about their lives. Getting married, posing for school photos, caught in mid-laugh. There were crayon drawings scribbled by children, kindergarten yellow suns and stick figures, blue skies and cloud. Pictures from the ghetto. A few cases away there were postcards from Terezin, fragile parchment with the tight script of music composed while waiting to be relocated.
Everyday things. Evidence of a human drive to find some sense of normalcy in a world that must have felt anything but.
Because what do you do? You must live. You must eat. You must work and mother your children, clean your clothes and put bread and meat on the table. You must put on a brave face for your children, make a big deal out of birthdays and holidays. Life is Beautiful.
Until it is not.
In the next case, the decrees. Small things. Inexplicably, the demand that Jews must surrender their ski equipment. If there was a political reasoning behind this, it is lost on me. What screamed out to me from between the lines was this: If you take just a little at a time, no one will put up a fight.
After all, it is relatively easy to live without ski equipment. Next came the gramophones. And little by little, the pleasures of life were stripped away. As if because you worship the same God in a different way you are not eligible for those pleasures. You are not entitled to music or skiing, meat, leisure time or vacations. Money. Property. A beautiful life. And slowly the small things add up to an avalanche. By the time you realize it is too late to dig yourself out. When you are ready to fight, you are already half-suffocated.
You are no longer entitled to life at all, beautiful or not.
Of course these seemingly small insults served another purpose. To dehumanize. After all, it is much easier to watch the neighbor who has ruffled the head of your child be deported is they seem less than you. It is much easier to watch the shopkeeper from whom you have bought oranges or lettuce be led away when he has been stripped of all dignity.
It will be ok. Don’t worry. Nothing is going to happen.
I can already sense the shift, the transition toward settling and normalizing. I see it in the slow claw back to everyday life.
Yet it feels almost dirty to wish friends a Happy Birthday on social media or to use an exclamation point for anything other than rage. It feels awkward and dishonest to like pictures of children and vacation snapshots in the sun.
It feels wrong.
Is there an equivalence between Europe in the 1930s and the United States right now? I hope not. Is there the capacity for it? I have to believe there is. How can you bear witness to the normalcy of evil and not believe it is possible?
For someone who hates to be wrong, I have never hoped to be wrong more than I do right now.
Where do you find the balance between normalcy and vigilance? How do you continue to live and work, to mother your children, to celebrate holidays, to live–while making sure you stay aware? How do you remind yourself of that tattoo inked upon your conscience?
In this quest to find a life that is beautiful amidst the chaos, while we absorb and process, I implore you to stay vigilant: Not only for horror itself, but for the capacity for it.