I am Jewish and grew up with parents and grandparents who watched the rise of Hitler and his systemic persecution and eventual annihilation of the Jews of Europe.
I was brought up with the fighting words, “NEVER AGAIN!” I was educated, probably too early (by the age of nine or ten) about the horrors of the concentration camps. I also knew about pogroms first hand from my grandparents – the organized massacres and looting of Jewish towns in Eastern Europe and Russia. The worst of the pogroms took place between 1919 and 1921, when thousands of towns were razed and the populations decimated in brutal and sadistic ways. This level of anti-semitism explains the cooperation the Nazis received in Eastern Europe by locals when they wanted to round up Jews and send them to camps or kill them on the spot.
From the time I was nine or ten, I would lie in bed and plan what I would grab to take with me when the knock came on the door to take us away to an unknown fate along with other Jews in the community. It breaks my heart to think that my childhood had these strong elements of distrust, insecurity and outright fear.
But as I got older, I came to believe that it could never happen in America. I called my parents and grandparents paranoid when they pointed to instances of anti-semitism in the States. I poo-pooed their fears and felt confident in the near total assimilation of Jews in America from the 1970s and 1980s on.
Many Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s thought they were “safe” because they were, say, ‘Germans first’, and Jews only second. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter. Sigmund Freud, a Jew, lived in Austria and was sure that as an ‘Austrian’ and a famous scientist, he was safe from persecution. He believed that the Nazis wouldn’t touch him. He had to be dragged onto a plane to get out of Austria in time – his was one of the last planes allowed to leave without Nazi sanction. And, in fact, his name was on a list to be picked up by the Gestapo and shipped to a concentration camp.
I just finished working on a deeply moving project for my audio theater group, Voicescapes Audio Theater. We dramatized the experience of one Jewish town, Felshtin, in Ukraine, which suffered a particularly horrible pogrom in February of 1919. The town never fully recovered. And those who didn’t escape the town and emigrate elsewhere in the aftermath of the pogrom were all wiped out by the Nais in 1941, only 22 years later.
We had the personal recollections of the pogrom from survivors, who told their stories in 1937 in order to preserve the memory of the town and its people. I took their poignant words and turned them into a powerful script which we performed with a violinist, sound effects and a power point display of photos. We got a standing ovation from the descendants of the Jews of Felshtin.
Shortly after our wrenching performance, I heard about a synagogue shooting in San Diego, CA, by a white supremacist, which injured three or four, including the Rabii, and killed one. There had been an even more lethal shooting in a Philadelphia synagogue six months before. These incidents of violent anti-semitism hit me harder than ever because I am still raw from a year spent engrossed in the horrors of pogroms against the Jews.
Remembering the image of avowed Nazis marching in Charlottesville, NC, in 2017, shouting “Jews will not replace us!”, I get a chill to the bottom of my soul. This, unfortunately, IS America today.
My parents and grandparents were right in understanding that there is, and always has been, a wide and deep swath of anti-semitism in the U.S. As late as the 1980s, there were apartment buildings in New York City, a very Jewish, diverse and liberal city, that didn’t allow Jews. One was across the street from where I lived. There were also still law firms that were all gentile or all Jewish because the two groups were not always allowed to mix in one law firm. This is also from personal knowledge and experience as a young lawyer in the city at this time. That was not so long ago.
Today we’re seeing white supremacy rising and getting the Presidential stamp of approval. Detention camps are being set up at the southern border for the vilified ‘immigrants’ from Mexico and Central America. If Trump wins a second term and gets to have six more years to reshape America in his xenophobic, racist and anti-semitic image, where will we be? Ready to put other nonwhite or otherwise not ‘totally American’ people into these camps? Are Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews next? Then will they come after the evil Democrats and liberals?
It has happened before. Many times. Can it happen again? Here?