Haunted By The Ghosts of Anti-Semitism

Yellow Jewish Star Jude

Just in time for Halloween the frightening ghosts and goblins of anti-Semitism past have arisen from their slumber. This virulent strain of hate never really disappeared, merely reawakened.

And it is deadly.

I am scared.

I am haunted.

I am a Jew.

I am haunted by the solemn voice of my childhood Rabbi whose thunderous High Holiday sermons referencing the Holocaust declared “Never Again,” sentiments echoed by Hebrew school teachers.

I am haunted by the countless conversations overhead as a child of anxious parents and family friends debating plaintively … “could it happen here?”

I am haunted by the knowledge that for my parent’s generation, a generation of Jews who lived a life of assimilation yet kept one eye open for that display of anti-Semitism that has always lived right below the surface.

I am haunted by the fact that my parent’s generation was right to believe that anti-Semitism never really left …that it was just a matter of time.

And that time is now.

Never Forget

Holocaust children in a camp

Among the tragic victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting were several seniors with living memories of the Holocaust. Just as the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling so are those who have first-hand memories of that horrific time.

That Greatest Generation who bore witness to the greatest atrocity of our time, the Holocaust, also bore witness to some of the most virulent anti-Semitic periods here in America.

People like my parents.

The Holocaust

Holocaust survivors Photo by Margaret Bourke-White Life Magazine

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White Life Magazine

By the spring of 1945, the unspeakable details of the European concentration camps began slowly being spoken about.

Through the war, few Americans were aware of its scale. Like most Americans, my mother and her family had their first glimpse of that atrocity when gruesome and heartbreaking images of the Holocaust appeared in print for the first time in the May 7, 1945 issue of “Life” magazine.

Holocauust Victims

Photo by Margaret Bourke White Life Magazine

It was unimaginable – Jewish bodies stacked like hardwood found at a liberated concentration camp. The gruesome display of haunted living corpses, smoldering piles of charred bodies, the atrocities that the allied troops had uncovered. The graphic images recorded for all time by Margaret Bourke-White were bone-chilling and would be seared into my 19-year-old mother’s mind.

This abomination was the unthinkable culmination of nearly two decades of growing anti-Semitism that she and other Jews had witnessed.

1930’s

Vintage photo Nazi Youth marching in Long Island 1930s

Unlike me, my parents had grown up with the constant assumption of anti-Semitism.

It was a childhood punctuated by parades of marching brown-shirted men with outstretched arms and swastikas, cemeteries desecrated and synagogues vandalized. Incendiary anti-Semitism spewed over the airwaves and grand public halls were filled by hateful Nazi rallies spreading vile propaganda.

Perceived as greedy, dishonest and all too powerful, Jews were restricted where they could go and where they could enjoy themselves.

This was America in the 1930’s.

Despite the fact that many, like my grandfather, had served their country in the Great War and felt themselves to be “real Americans,” no matter how assimilated, the Jew was still the “other.”

Many hotels, clubs, and colleges restricted or prohibited Jews from visiting, attending, or becoming members. That was the norm for my parents. Jews were barred from prestigious law firms, admitted to medical schools on a quota basis and excluded from employment by the phrase “Christian.”

A suspicious public still saw Jewish people as different, unassimilable, and threatening. When my mother visited a college friend in Ohio a group gathered at the train station to sneak a peek at “the Jew” to see whether it was true they actually had horns.

“Beware of World Jewry”

As Hitler was rising to power in Germany the U.S. was producing its own anti-Semitic demagogues.

Though the news of the Nazi persecution moved from the front page to the inside of the newspapers, Jews were not only frightened with what was happening in Germany,  there was the unspoken fear – “Could it happen here?”

One of the most popular and dangerous voices was Father Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest and propaganda king who peddled hate, spouting vile anti-Semitism on his radio program. No flash in the pan, this popular program attracted 40 million listeners for over a decade.

To Coughlin, the New Deal became the “Jew Deal,” liberals were communists and the faithful must “Think Christian,” “Buy Christian” and “Beware of World Jewry.” By the late 1930’s Father Coughlin was speaking out in favor of the Nazis and blaming Jews for political and economic troubles.

Jewish World Conspiracy

Henry Fords Dearborn Independent Anti Jewish headline

Henry Fords articles in The Dearborn Independent attracted the attention of Adolph Hitler 1920

That familiar “Globalism” trope had dovetailed nicely with Henry Ford who a few years earlier had outlined the “Jewish World Conspiracy” in his newspaper the “Dearborn Independent.”

His anti-Semitic views echoed the fears and assumptions of many Americans. The articles referred to Jews as the root of Americas and the world’s ills and were reproduced in the book “The International Jew: The Worlds Foremost Problem.”

Suffice to say my grandparents only purchased Chryslers for their motoring pleasure.

Stereotype caricature of a Capitalist Jew

Even Lucky Lindy, my father’s childhood idol, became a Nazi Sympathizer.

All-American hero Charles Lindberg began espousing “America First” a slogan embraced by Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930’s. No friend of the Jews he famously commented: “We are all disturbed about the effect of the Jewish influence in our press, radio, and motion pictures.”

“Jews Will Not Replace Us”

Vintage editorial cartoon Jewish Refugees not accepted

Even as American’s read about the Jews being attacked on the streets of Nazi Germany there was great resistance for increasing immigration quotas fearing the potential flood of undesirable immigrants.

As the waiting lists for U.S. immigration visas swelled so did anti-Semitism.

German Jewish refugees on St Louis 1939

By 1939 bills in Congress were proposed to end all immigration for 5 years. Speeches by Senators insisted that the time had come to “Save America for Americans.”

While those exclusionary words echoed in our halls of Congress, the fated “St. Louis” the  German ocean liner filled with Jewish refugees was refused entry into the U.S. and turned back.

German American Bund rally NY Madison Square Garden 1939

That same year the German American Bund held an “Americanization” rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden denouncing Jews and their conspiracies. The rally was attended by 20,000 uniformed men wearing swastika armbands and carrying Nazi banners.

Never Again

Yartzeit Memorial candle

With the end of WWII, the sober realities of what hate could bring were made manifest.

After the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed perhaps the hope was the world would be cleansed of that virulent strain of hate. Perhaps the greatest generation hoped to eradicate anti-Semitism as they had with polio.

So yes, gone would be the overt anti-Semitism of my parent’s youth, but it was never far from their minds.

For my own childhood, anti-Semitism seemed to be a relic of the past. Because I would grow up living in an unprecedented time of acceptance for Jews it would be easy for me to be lulled into a sense of security.

Because what happened in Nazi Germany was such a terrible atrocity it felt impossible to imagine ourselves capable of causing anything that resembled it. Certainly, societies would stop, reverse, and repair long before plunging into such appalling depths.

I wanted to think “never again” was a statement of fact. In my America, that kind of hate can’t exist.

Except it can.

Past is Present

Victims of the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting

The specter of anti-Semitism has always hovered around us, the shadowy world of hate like a sinister ghost I chose not to want to see it.

But even as an American Jew, I learned through osmosis the coded language and dog whistles of hate and bigotry. To Jewish eyes and Jewish ears the tropes of today are familiar, as familiar as the ancient prayers of Kaddish said in temple.

As shocked as I am today at this ugly display of hate perpetrated in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I am haunted by the fact my parents might not be.

My parents were haunted by the ghosts of anti-Semitism.

Though I never believed in ghosts, I do now.

I am spooked.

I am a Jew.

 

 © Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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20 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Rcooley123's Blog and commented:
    The rampant hatred of years gone by is remaining partially submerged no longer, led by a xenophobe who managed to become President of the USA. He and like-minded people in other nations are rising to power with hate-filled rhetoric and encouragement of political, racial and religious violence in far too many countries once again. This essay by Sally Edelstein illustrates how peoples targeted by these hateful ideologies are affected by them, and how they must be resisted vociferously by the vast majority of people who recognize the evil they represent. Trump’s current rampage against refugees and immigrants in general in an attempt to foment hatred and violence to distract us in the days before our midterm elections less than a week from now needs to be strongly condemned and a message must be sent on November 6th, list the voices of hatred and inhumanity lead us into a future of authoritarian fascism we may have thought we would face “Never Again” – rjc

    Liked by 3 people

  2. jmartin18rdb

    The recent events and the rise of violence and vandalism aimed at Jews in the past two years is chilling. Sally, you make history speak to the fears that should worry not only Jews but all of us as a nation. Thank you for the added perspective and the reminders. We can only hope it is not too late to reverse the trends.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In less than a week, we will know what defines this country now. Are we turning away from fascism and hate or heading towards it full speed ahead. I try to still have faith in the basic goodness of our country but it is eroded on a daily basis.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Laura B.

    When I was a child, my mother had a good friend who was Jewish, a lady I loved very much. I was about 7 or 8 when this lady’s mother passed away, and we attended her funeral service at a synagogue. Since I was raised Catholic, it was all very new and different to me, and I told my a few of my school friends about it. Once of the little girls made a negative comment – I don’t remember exactly what – and when I mentioned this to my parents, they told me that some people didn’t like Jews, and there was even a term for it: antisemitism. I remember I asked why anyone would dislike someone just because they were Jewish, thinking of my mother’s friend. They told me that it didn’t make sense, that it was complicated and hard to explain.

    Like so many things that are complicated and hard to explain to a child, I figured I would probably only understand it when I was older. But I never did.

    All I have been able to figure out is that some people need someone to hate, whether it’s the person in the next car, or the folks in the next country. I’ll never know why they feel this need. I’ll never know why they pick certain targets. Nobody has ever been able to explain that to me, either at 7 or 27.

    I look into the faces of the victims, and all I see are human beings. I guess I’ll never understand why some see differently.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Laura, for sharing this very poignant story. I don’t know how a parent can possibly explain hate to a child, when in fact it should be the child who leads the way without any learned prejudices. Sadly, the Jewish people have a long history, centuries of being persecuted and expelled from their homeland. With the current increase of antisemitic attacks in our own country, it has only reignited some of these long learned fears that Jews learn.

      Like

  4. bernesemtdog

    I just finished reading: Man’s Search of Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I do all of my reading on the train. I cried throughout most of the book even though, Viktor’s book is not the first book I have read about a Holocaust survivor. No matter how many books I read, or articles I read on-line, I well up and cry. I was raised Roman Catholic. My dad came from Italy to USA with his parents as a little boy. I can recall as a little girl one Sunday, while walking home from Mass, I asked my father if he believed in the devil. He said, “Yes. I have seen the Devil.” I said, “You have?” He said, “Yes. Hitler.” My father and I had a very tenuous relationship except when it came to the Holocaust. My father always said, “Never forget because it could happen again.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is such an important book to read, now more than ever. As painful as it is to read it does teach us how to survive and create meaning in our lives. Many Holocaust scholars have written strong warnings about the path we are headed towards now in this country. Parallels with Hitler’s rise are very disturbing. As Im sure you are aware German Jews in the 1930’s had been German citizens for many, many generations and were totally assimilated in the German culture. Not unlike Jews here. That is why we cannot forget and become complacent with all the negative dialogue and activity we are currently seeing in our country.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I did not know that it was the conservatives that pushed an anti-Jew agenda in America during the early 20th century. They also pushed for anti-black. I assume they pushed for anti-Mexicans as well. That “wall” is a pretty good representation of a modern version of anti-Mexican. But, who pushed the anti-Muslim agenda after 9/11? It was fear, I think. I was 15 years old then. I remember. I also believe everyone is only responsible for their own actions. We can’t take responsibility or credit for what someone else did. As such, I never could find the connection between our current President and what hate is doing. But, I didn’t know the history. I still can’t see how he’s responsible. But, I do see now why hate is empowered by him. He does have Jewish family, so I’m still quite confused by it all. I’ve always said, time is like a spiral, it’s not completely lineal and it doesn’t exactly repeat. However, there is a progression with ever occurring similar events.

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    • This kind of violence is the inevitable result of the hate that Trump is exploiting for his own political ambitions and self-aggrandizement and he doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his actions. Trump, of course, didn’t ask his supporters to take an AR 15 and massacre Jews. But Trump speaks a language that the shooter heard loud and clear. The killer was inspired by the president’s recent anti-semitic dog whistles ( Globalist) and conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire George Soros. Those dog whistles are as old as time ( coastal elites, etc) The shooter was mimicking Trumps Nationalist rants and direct connection playing on fear about the “invasion” from the Caravan being somehow supported by Soros. His dog whistles are heard loud and clear by every neo-Nazi and white supremacist when they hear him talk about Globalists and proudly calling himself a nationalist.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. November 11 is coming up again, the poppies are coming out and some people are thinking, “Lest we forget” but this article gives us all a closer to home reason to think, “Lest we forget”. Deliberately forgetting the rise of Nazism and attendant subsequent horrors is what current trends are indicative of. It isn’t just that man is a short-lived creature with very short term memory, but that the creature is programmed to return to its vomit and think of it as the greatest thing it ever managed to cough up. Other bloggers are asking the question, why now? What’s triggering the violence of racism and antisemitism? The answer is simple enough. As before, the privileged are reacting to changes they fear will undermine their real or imaginary privileges. Migrants, despite all evidence to the contrary, are seen as such a dangerous change and with the right kind of propaganda and a deliberate ignoring of laws put in place by better people to protect these vulnerable victims of mob violence, the attacks by bullies and cowards are, once again, “on”. It’s cyclical. The question is, how deep and long will this particular cycle run?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve shared this on my timeline and page on Facebook, Sally. I think people need to have a better appreciation of what it means to be Jewish in America and why, perhaps, Trump visiting Pittsburgh had a nasty feel about it to many, especially after being asked come next week after the burials and time for people of Tree of Life Temple to grieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing this. Overt antisemitism was a reality in America’s not so distant past and its reemergence is quite unsettling. Trump’s behavior has, not surprisingly, been appalling throughout the tragedies that have affected us all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was, typical of your work, perfectly stated. We have to speak out or suffer the consequences of such appalling and unacceptable language and behavior becoming “normal”. I know making the comparisons with Germany in the 1930s-1940s is problematic, yet….

        I am cautiously optimistic there will be a swing toward a more rational America Tuesday. I hope it happens, first of all, that it is in time, secondly, and sufficient most of all.

        Like

  8. One man has basically taken control of Twitter. The media repeat his tweets over and over as a point of reference. It appears everyone is an enemy except for the minority of Americans who back him. Vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues happens often here in Canada. There is no doubt in my mind Trump is the catalyst giving those who bear deeply hidden hate to spew it everywhere. I volunteer with the Jewish Hate Crimes Alert where the increase has easily doubled during the last six months. Beautifully written article Sally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly attacks on Jews are on the rise in not only America but Europe. That is disheartening to learn of it happening in Canada. In 2017 antisemitic incidents including physical assaults, vandalism, and attacks on Jewish Institutions surged nearly 60% over the previous year according to the ADL, the largest single-year increase on record. Under Trump, America has witnessed a rise in hate crimes and a resurgence of white supremacy like never before.
      As we have been reminded “Words have consequences” a lesson that Trump fails to grasp.
      I am glad you found this article meaningful and thank you for your important volunteer work.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Sadly, yesterday a temple in Brooklyn was vandalized with the words “Die Jewish Rat”. On a personal note, the rabbi at that temple was the rabbi who married me. There feels as though there is no end to all this.

    Like

    • History, academia and personal experiences have given us so much information about man’s propensity towards inhumane behaviour. Isn’t it time we put our heads together and start figuring out what’s what with what we’d call ‘human nature’ and why it expresses so often, so readily, in exact opposition to what is considered normal human nature or behaviour? What drives the creature towards violence? Why does it respond so naturally to any call for violence especially when such call has no basis in fact and can readily be seen to be purely destructive? Or as is asked in the “G” movie, “Why do we thrill at destruction and yawn at creation?” Let’s ask the age old question and maybe your Rabbi has an answer: where does evil come from? Surely we need to establish the source of evil if we hope to ever terminate it? Two more questions, why are we afraid to look at the evil that ever lurks about in our hearts and minds? And why have our religions been so utterly impotent in dealing with this problem?

      Like

  10. John Martin

    So sad. It is all personal, but sometimes more so than always. Sorry you have to have to cope with more disturbing news, Sally.

    Liked by 1 person

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