Helen, the 90 year old woman I have been helping out, and I are wandering the farmstand. Her exquisite palate is very picky and ever since moving out of her beloved New York, there’s an added bitterness. No apples because dentures, she’s tired of bananas, she has strawberries and I hope to god she’ll go for her staple yogurt, a bit of protein or whatever. I’m scanning vegetables and ask, “Beets?”
She shakes her head, a subtle but severe no. “After the camps, I don’t do beets.”
For a split second I am choked up, imagining the little woman beside me as a girl, 13 or so, with the snow, the barbed wires, the smoke.
She keeps walking, as she always has, inspecting the tomatoes and eyeing the yogurt. I really shouldn’t be surprised by now, but time and time again we’ll be in the middle of some mundane task, she drops a few words and my cognitive dissonance steps in, trying to make sense of this moment and the world we live in.
Our world is one that will never make sense, one that over and over for thousands of years builds itself up and tears itself down, often at the cost of the innocents, the men and women and parents and children who walk through the world teaching love and peace and understanding of our many differences that give us the same right to exist. It burns – this knowing that humanity has the power to be so cruel and ignorant. Pick a metaphor – a forest fire demolishing all life in hopes to provide for later generations, thoughts are hard to swallow and we get heartburn, the inability to digest bubbling up in our chests. I think of the murder and burning of millions of people, my people, the Jews, LGBTQ, people with disabilities or differences from that of an Aryan nation. A bright red flag stole an ancient symbol of peace and desecrated its form, forever maintaining the mark of hatred, bigotry, murder, genocide. I open the news and I see a map, full of red from coast to coast, a red not too far from the horrid flag waving in the name of white greatness.
The six-hour time difference between Hamburg and Boston made no difference today. Drained and numb in our own time zones my dear friend and I stared blankly at each other via Skype, which still feels like a novelty to me, the ability to share the same moment with another person in voice and image no matter where you are. If anything, this past election has sealed her decision to stay in Germany – a country that while it was home to the modern world’s most unprecedented violence against humanity has stepped forward and taken ownership of its land and memorialized the loss of human life with immense humility and grace.
We talk of something, I don’t remember what, unrelated to the current state of affairs but eventually we find ourselves back where we started. Shaking our heads, an unspoken understanding of sorrow. For ten years we’ve kept a thread – distraught notes in English class, laying listless on the blackbox floor, postcards from Boston, Bavaria and Israel, emails across the Atlantic. Illness, adolescence, academics, heartbreak, death, divorce, day to day mumblings. Our annotated bibliography will cite the shoebox in her attic, artifacts confirming one’s worst nightmare that somewhere in earlier blood there was hatred, violence, involvement with Axis powers. It will also cite the tree my maternal grandfather drew in the 1970s detailing the original couple who fled Vilnius, Lithuania in the late 1890s and the sprawling siblings and their decedents that made Chelsea, Massachusetts their home. We don’t talk about it, but I have always kept in mind the histories of our blood and bones and that of our bond today.
Helen died last month. Friday, November 4, 2016, a day before her 96th birthday. Aside from my own grandmother, she is the heartiest person I have ever known. Starting in 1939 at age 16, there was one goal: stay alive. Zwolen, Poland to Radom to Majdanek to Plaszow to Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen where she and her one remaining sister were liberated. Her parents, other siblings, and extended siblings all were murdered during the Holocaust along with 11 million others, 6 million of which were Jews.
New York City would soon be her home for years to come. About ten years after her husband (another survivor whom she met in Germany after the war) died, it was decided that assisted living in Boston would be best. Transport of any kind unnerved her – there is little difference between the rumbling of train cars cities and decades apart. After living on foot throughout Europe and Manhattan, she tsked at the walker her caregivers provided, grumbling in Yiddish, ambling on.
I write this for you, for me and for her, but really for you dear reader. As I write, “alt –right Republicans” are getting away with the celebration and empowerment of “white nationalism.” I do not accept either of those terms being tossed around. The identity, philosophy and individuals slinging swastikas, confederate flags and pure hatred is that of Nazism. Call it Neo-Nazi if you must, but do not cloak this abhorrence in the white flag of surrender, neutrality or purity.
This past weekend I found myself entrenched in Band of Brothers, the 2001 HBO miniseries that follows one Army paratrooper company from basic training and Normandy throughout the war. Each episode begins with a few remarks and reflections, documentary style with octogenarians we learn are actual veterans of Easy Company. With Helen’s death in the back of my mind, I wonder how many of those men, if any of those men, are alive today. It only took one episode to fall in love with the incarnations of Easy Company, Damien Lewis and Ron Livingston at the frontlines. As the men, really just boys, of Easy Company parachute into the dark swamps of Normandy, they drift into and get caught in our need to belong, our fears of aloneness, our desire to come out alive and on top. It’s not until the last episodes that the men know why they are fighting – each makes their own meaning but there is very little gravity to their war until the men stumble blindly into a concentration camp, a few gaunt eyes and living skeletons, survivors, amongst dozens of emaciated and frozen bodies. There is no going back, no forgetting, no unknowing – nor should there be. Easy Company, survivors, their children, their grandchildren would commit memories to their hearts and minds as permanent as the tattooed numbers on the arms of those imprisoned.
The rememberers are running out. The bodies and souls holding innumerable painful and valuable memories are dying if not dead already. Perhaps they were able to have some semblance of a life after the war, but what is that if we neglect their histories and commit or condone that violence again.
We Jews exist to remind you. We exist as bodies and voices and a fraction of what we once were and we exist to keep a thread of mourning, fear, anger and action always humming within the rest of the world.
I fear that our mourning and fear and anger and action will be dismissed, ignored, defied again. Because you cannot comprehend or tap into the bodily memory of ignorance and violence does not mean it doesn’t exist.
In the years after the Holocaust, the term Righteous Gentile arose – a non Jew who provided safe passage, hiding and or resistance against the Nazis while their own mortality was not threatened.
In the years after the Holocaust, numerous wars and millions of people have been killed and oppressed based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age and ability.
In the years after the Holocaust, we have not stopped the violence.
In the days after the election, we have not stopped Trump.
In the days after the election, your momentary peace of mind, your neutrality, your exhaustion at the mere thought of all this, your compliance, your open mind angers me.
In the days after the election, I kick and scream behind my skull and try not to take it out on those within arms reach and for the first time in my life, the act of wearing a Star of David necklace out of the house gives me pause.