Last night the President of the United State of America refused to condemn white supremacy, enabling and ennobling them. On national TV. The same America whose story of the triumph of good over evil was the lessons of WWII.
Now emboldened, white supremacists are feeling proud of themselves and their president. For them, it was a victory. For the rest of us, it was a profound moment of disbelief, shame, and grief for our country. This collective national trauma has left many in a state of fear.
We are in danger, folks.
Out and Proud
That an American president could encourage the Proud Boys whose founder once ranted about the “10 Things I Hate About Jews” is unimaginable. As a 65-year-old New York Jewish woman who long thought antisemitism was a thing of the past and a husband who is a Holocaust survivor, we have had to navigate the ugliness of the Trump era together.
When I saw the Nazi flag being waved proudly through the streets of Charlottesville, the hate-filled slogans like “Jews will not replace us,” chanted by neo-Nazis, all I could see was a little Polish boy, homeless, hungry and cold, living in a crowded Displaced Persons camp for 4 years in post-WWII Germany.
When I heard our President espousing the Proud Boys, the alt-right hate group founded by Holocaust denier Gavin McInnes, a man who mocks Jews “whiny paranoid fear of Nazis,” I saw the same little boy who would never know what it was like to grow up with a grandfather, a grandmother, uncles, or aunts.
Because the holocaust did happen, Mr. McInnes.
I know this because this lonely little Polish boy born without a home and without an extended family would one day grow up to be my all-American husband. My in-laws were Holocaust survivors bearing witness to unspeakable horrors.
His extended family were among the millions of unarmed Jewish civilians men women and children brutally slaughtered by the Nazis in the towns of Eastern Europe. Others were gassed in camps. Those swastikas wearing forebearers are the inspiration to today’s hate-filled Americans offering Sieg Heils on the streets of an American town.
Now 75 years later, that same little boy who would eventually grow up to be an American citizen and a public defender, defending the rights of our indigent, had to tragically hear his own President talk about the “good people” at the torchlit Nazi parade. And describe the “good genes” of a Minnesota crowd, eerily evoking Hitler’s eugenics.
In some ways, the past is always present in the little boy who lives within this man. With wounds too deep to ever heal, the decades-old walls built to cover pain too hard to feel and block out what is too hard to remember, remain impenetrable. Along with parts of himself, the trauma lives buried, its toxic damage leaching out over 75 years, affecting generations of loved ones later. Including his wife.
Though not my own history the damage from his tragedy becomes part of mine.
I had always felt fortunate to have been born when I was, a full decade after the end of WWII which in a child’s mind is an eternity. The Nazi atrocities of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Belzec seemed ancient history. Storm Troopers in their black boots and their angry red flags emblazoned with swastikas became harmless villains easily beaten in movies, comics, and television. We had been victorious in our fight against Hitler resulting in the ultimate defeat of the ultimate evil.
The sober realities of what hate could bring were made manifest. After the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed the hope was the world would be cleansed of that virulent strain of hate. Perhaps that greatest generation hoped to eradicate anti-Semitism as they had with polio.
For my own childhood in suburban 1960’s Long Island, 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.
How glad I was to be a Jew in America safe and immune from that kind of hate. The unthinkable atrocities in Europe could never happen in our democracy we were told.
I wanted to think “never again” was a statement of fact. In my America, that kind of hate can’t exist. Except it can.
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.
But even as an assimilated 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.
Of course through the years, a reviled swastika scrawled on a wall or an ugly anti-Semitic rant might rear its ugly head causing a queasy uneasy feeling to wash over me, but I could be confident that the perpetrators of this hateful act were swiftly and firmly denounced.
The European Jewish story was history, an unthinkable tragedy important to remember, but unimaginable here.
But now the unthinkable is entering American Jews’ thoughts. Including mine.
I no longer feel protected in my own country least of all by our president with his appalling lack of leadership and empathy. The hatred, bigotry, and violence in Charlottesville came from “many sides” our President insisted, but the fact is only one side was carrying swastika flags, the flag of Nazi Germany.
It is unthinkable that the President of the United States, the leader of a country that over 70 years ago sacrificed hundreds and thousands of the greatest generation to ensure the demise of that same evil, not vigorously condemn Americans who marched and spout the hate of the Third Reich.
Now as I observe my husband as he watches the horror of what has been unleashed in our country, I see the little boy confronted by that noxious symbol of hate once again, and the trauma that has long been buried gets stirred up. The look is of pain but so deep in the recesses, he is unable to speak of it.
Today my 75-year-old husband struggles with cognitive decline. But this hate that has been unleashed and encouraged by our President is something he understands even if he can’t find the words to express them.
I will be his voice. And it is loud, it is outraged, and it is frightened.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. 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.