Anti – Semitism in Europe – Again?
“At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?” And the answer: “Where was man?” William Styron
We are all born into some story, with its particular background scenery, that affects our emotional, social and spiritual growth.
My story was anti-Semitism. My grandparents were part of the well documented immigration of eastern European and Russian Jews at the end of the nineteenth century to America. Restrictions and barriers were placed on Jews that made it impossible to have a normal self-sustaining life in their countries. In Russia and Poland, pogroms (physical attacks on the Jews and their villages) happened on a regular basis.
Both my parents were born here and had experienced anti-Semitism growing up. My father was a high-ranking officer in the army (not a job Jews could have at that time) and had fought in two wars. He experienced extreme prejudice during his twenty years in the army. My mother grew up on a farm where they were the only Jewish family in their town. She also had a lot of experience with bigotry and discrimination.
When they had children, they moved into the most Jewish neighborhood they could find so their children wouldn’t have the same experiences. Many holocaust survivors moved there as well. I grew up hearing all the stories.
I was able to read at a very young age and for some reason read the story of Anne Frank when I was nine years old. I looked at the picture of Anne. She had brown hair and brown eyes. I thought that she looked like me and she was Jewish also. I decided in my nine year old wisdom that they could come for me too. I quickly became friends with the only Christian I knew, Frankie, the son of the superintendent of our building. His family could hide me if it happened again.
Children don’t understand prejudice. The world is black and white to them. If someone is mean than you don’t like them. But for someone to not like you and want to kill you because you are Jewish, or Black, Gay or Muslim – that is a hard concept for kids. It has to be taught. As in – if your parents hate them or are afraid of them, then they must be bad. Being hated because I was born into a Jewish family that wasn’t even religious was hard for me as a child to comprehend.
I grew up on the beach and saw a lot of people with numbers on their arms. All the old people who I knew had heavy European accents. For a brief period I thought they counted the older people and when you became old you got an accent. Many of my friends were the children of holocaust survivors. Their lives were shrouded in mystery and darkness.
The holocaust changed so many lives by simply observing just how horrible certain humans can treat each other. It didn’t just scar the survivors but anyone who came in contact with their stories. I grew up in a frightened community. I have always felt how tenuous the world was and that things could end at any moment just as it had for Anne Frank.
As I got older, I became obsessed with reading everything I could about the holocaust. I saw every film and documentary. Someone asked me once “What job I was going to get as the leading authority on the holocaust?’ But I needed answers. How did it happen? Why did people hate us so much? How do people hate for no reason and of course – the nature of evil.
I learned that evil can happen when it is beyond the realm of civilized human consciousness – like planning to kill all the Jews in Europe by gassing and burning them in ovens, flying a plane into the World Trade Center, murdering all the intellectuals or killing or kidnapping children for going to school.
I am watching that evil again. I recently saw a map on CNN listing the number of Jews living in each country in Europe. Was that the same map that Hitler looked at? The last time I saw a map listing the number of Jews in each country in Europe it was in a holocaust book showing the number of dead Jews from each country.
So there are no lessons to be learned from the past. The people committing atrocities don’t think of themselves as evil. They commit these acts in the name of righteousness or religion. As someone who loves stories, I wanted restoration and redemption in my story. But instead the monsters of my childhood turn out to be human beings in the present.