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.
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I believe it was the philosopher Sting who wrote, “Once that you’ve decided on a killing. First you make a stone of your heart.” The creeping, insidious removal of humanity from our “enemies” has already begun. My social media is full of “shut up libertards” and other such high falootin’ talk.
I had a Holocaust survivor come and talk to my classes once and he told the story of how his friend told the Nazis where he was hiding. He was shipped of to Sobibor while the people he had grown up with taunted him. He saw the joy on those faces and has never forgotten them. Power is such an intoxicating drug and people who have lost their power are willing to do just about anything to hold on to it for a few seconds longer.
If history teaches us one thing, it is that when the mob turns it doesn’t take long. Let’s hope this mob turns on its creator.
Can you imagine? I can’t even wrap my head around that, to think that someone who you called friend would betray you in such a way. How you could possibly believe in any kindness or goodness after that? The fact that he did is an amazing testament to the human spirit. I’m not sure I have it in me. I can’t even forgive those who voted for Trump yet, let alone those who would throw their fellow citizens to the wolves. I don’t know what’s going to happen. These are definitely strange times. And the US is far from the only one experiencing these dangerous tides sweeping them along. 2017 has elections coming up in France and the Netherlands. And everyone’s forgotten all about Turkey….Ugh.
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This is really what we can do. Stay vigilant. Fight. It is no small thing.
Last night, Trevor Noah suggested that if they require Muslims to register, that all Americans register as Muslims. This is how we fight.
It is no small thing. But I worry nonetheless. It is tiring to remain vigilant. It is tiring to fight. It is tiring to stand up for what is right. Yes what are the alternatives?
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And already the outrageous begins to feel normal. Sessions? Seriously. Jeff Sessions the man too racist to be a federal judge under Reagan is going to be AG??? WTF?
The Guardian is reporting that David Petraeus is under consideration for Secretary of State. True or not, it’s like American Horror Show.
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Just because he gives away state secrets for sex? What could possibly be wrong with that — unless you’re a democrat.
Of course, I’d rather have Petraeus than John – regime change in Iran – Bolton.
God help us.
You know things are screwed up when you’re hoping for Mitt Romney….Bolton’s a nightmare as well.
I also want to stay vigilant while still grieving. I am still overwhelmed and a bit I denial. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
To be honest some days it’s the only thing that’s getting me through the day.
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Dina–Thank you for the writing you did leading up to the election, but especially the writing since. I live in a red state where election after election foolish people vote against their own self interests and the greater good. (The last bit of pride in our state was a surprising turn blue for Pres. Obama’s first term. I will be in mourning when that family leaves the WH.) Your posts have really helped me to deal.
Taking kids on field trips has become a fucking nightmare in recent years, but this year I vowed I was taking my students to a Holocaust museum an hour-and-a-half from our school if I had to pay for it myself. I have so many children of Trump supporters in my classes. Kids who will read Freedom Writers Diary and feel solidarity for Erin Gruwell’s Long Beach, CA students — and in the next moment walk out to their pickup with the Confederate flag emblazoned on the rear window. They study the Holocaust (my husband is the history teacher and viewing Schindler’s List is part of the unit he teaches) and turn away or cry when images are shown–but go home to families that have ancestors who were (and in a very few cases I suspect still are) in the Klan. This year I could not stomach the thought of one missed opportunity to show them how things can go horribly off the rails if we don’t pay attention, recognize signs, stand up for those targeted.
The museum we’re going to is ran by a Holocaust survivor who was a Mengele twin. She will talk to the kids for two hours. A docent will then share his experiences on the Night of Broken Glass and the weeks following it until his family got out of Germany. I hope the warnings sink in.
Vigilance is tiring. Anger is tiring. Writing letters, emails, and tweets, and calling legislators is tiring. I’m exhausted even thinking about 13+ hours of travel to DC in January, marching in the cold, and a 13+ hour bus ride home. But I have students, children, and grandchildren who have to endure what we leave.
Again–thanks for being a kindred spirit and taking the time to write about it.
I don’t know what to say. Every time I think this is just a useless exercise in vanity, just a way to make myself feel better, someone comes along and I don’t know, maybe they found a sentence they clung to or a word or a thought that made them feel left alone and I’m always reminded of the power of word and stories to connect, but most of all how close we all are. We seem to be hell bent on finding the differences these days, exploiting them, using them to prove a point that doesn’t exist. But…you know your own soul, right? I mean we all have to be able to live with ourselves, hold ourselves accountable, and for ones who can afford it–either emotionally or financially or physically–we’ve got to do the heavy lifting. Some days I feel more up to it than others. Some day I want to wave a white flag. But so far, I never have. And from your letter, it appears you have no intention of raising that white flag either. Good. Don’t. If there is some reckoning somewhere along this side of life or the next, you can feel good about the heart you put on the scales.
I think a lot about the idea of micro-activism, that the small changes we make in society, as parents, as teachers, as neighbors–they have a trickle UP affect. We become more accepting as a whole. The last 30 years have shown that in terms of social progress. I have to believe that this–this danger we face now–is an aberration and not the new norm. Otherwise the work of carrying on gets even more tiring. But worse, as you mention, we’re passing that burden on to our children. Rather than lifting them up, we are weighing them down. It’s all enough to make you weep. And I do. Copiously, in private, for a minute or two. Then like so many others, like you I suspect, I dry my tears and keep moving forward.
Thank you so much for taking the time to write–these really are the things that make me think it’s worth continuing.
Vigilance is the answer. Support the ACLU and other watchdogs. Don’t go down without a fight. Also find solace anywhere you can.
That’s pretty much my Christmas list this year. Donations. Donations. Donations.
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