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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.