Scoundrel Time

Before & After

7 November (the day before Election Day 2016)

Hitler analogies have always disturbed me. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I take this subject very personally. Usually the comparison is intentionally hyperbolic and over-simplistic, designed to provoke fearful knee-jerk reactions, to manipulate and demonize. But here we are, Election 2016, and the resonant imagery is not only terrifying but all too accurate, all too familiar. We really have seen this before.

Deutschland über alles,” my father says, his voice dripping with irony, his German accent suddenly resilient after more than seventy years in exile from the country of his birth. It’s always been the forbidden language in our house, and my father is only quoting the phrase because he’s at a high school, speaking to students about one of the ways Hitler managed to captivate his audience. “Many Germans admired him for that, and never asked any questions about how he would accomplish this.” I hear my father, survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, annually reminding class after class of teenagers that they have to be careful whom they listen to, not to give their power away to authority.

And now? When the slogan “Make America Great Again” reverberates in a sinister and obvious echo? I’m not just talking about the demagogue himself, the sneering fascistic stream of hate speech, the threatening and blaming and projecting. I’m talking about the frenzy of the crowds, the eruptions of violence that escalate in seconds from furious jeering to homicidal rage. I’m talking about the slogans—on signs, on t-shirts, on social media walls and real world walls. I’m talking about the explicit targeting of non-whites, the bitter twisted ferocity of entitlement, the fantasy of a restored “Golden Age” (read: White Supremacy), the denial of facts, the exaltation, again, of an idealized “father” who can save “us.”

The echoes ripple backward and forward. The dismissals, early on: He can’t be taken seriously; it’s just a lunatic fringe getting behind that clown, that imposter. He will disappear on his own, for lack of support, after failing to prove his extremist point and moving on. Then the too-little-too-late criticism from the right, the self-serving claims and subtle encouragements that he will be kept ‘in-check’ for “our” own purposes. He will gather crowds for “us” to exploit too. The naiveté, the ignorance, the wickedness, all building momentum to coordinate in force. Then, the “testing” of power by way of outrageous words and behavior that should have been denounced and yet were weakly (at best) called out. Thinly veiled—no, transparent!—threats to freedom, justice, human rights. “I am the only one who can do it,” he says. Guaranteeing deportations by the millions, vowing to “lock up” his enemies. Announcing he may or may not accept the results of the election.

What else do we need in order to remember Germany of the 1930s? Scholars and historians are taking entire pages of text, with hindsight-rich analysis replacing the name of Hitler and inserting this new name. Using the term “alt-right” instead of Nazis, and the clarity, the proof, is beyond chilling. So often, we shake our heads about the past. How could they have known? And also: How could so few have read the writing on the wall, and so many fail to see?

This scenario has already played itself out. We (I mean all of us; I mean, the nation, the world) have a precedent to refer to, an all-too-relevant example, a portrait of what happens when circumstances meet opportunists, when a population seething with grievance (and wildly armed with weapons. Have we failed to include this in our calculations?) chooses to follow a madman enthusiastically promising to use absolute power (power beyond that accorded by the Constitution, power well beyond the law) to destroy the “enemy.”

Listen. My paternal grandmother’s extended family left Germany for Palestine in 1933. They were Zionists, but the timing was not coincidental. Hitler’s ominous rise to power was evidence enough that their departure couldn’t be delayed. Perhaps they’d read Mein Kampf? Perhaps they were simply waiting for an economic window. I don’t know. But they left. All except my grandmother’s own nuclear family, one small group of five staying behind in Hamburg.

Rachel and David had three young boys, and there was a family business to maintain. A life they believed in. They named my father Karlheinz, and his younger brothers were Wolfgang and Helmut. Do you see? My grandparents must have thought they belonged. They must have believed in the future of their own German life. Hamburg, 1933.

So, I’m writing this today, one day before Election Day. The barbarians aren’t at the gates. They are here: attending his rallies, surrounding the polling places, pointing guns at the voting booth. They might as well be wearing brown shirts and black boots; they might as well be carrying swastika-splashed flags, beating up their foes in broad daylight. History is right here. Unless we—all of us, with eyes open and with courage—aim our votes for her, for Hillary, we are all at risk. We can defeat the dark past by bringing light into the present moment. We must. Please vote as if the future of democracy is at stake, as if our very lives are at stake. It is. They are.

 

8 November (Election Day 2016)

Everything, today, still hangs in the balance.

I think about this date seventy-eight years ago, in 1938, when a heads-down-until-this-passes attitude may have prevailed. The bullies and slogans were visible but not yet everywhere; the New Normal of the Nuremberg Laws were uncomfortable but not intolerable, despite the underlying sources, the five years’ worth of cumulative power-grabbing and rights-revoking. Already Jewish professions were targeted: Jewish customers only, the rapidly developing separations into Us and Them. Segregated schools? Closed schools? Not yet. But Buchenwald concentration camp had already opened (the year before), and the Evian Conference had already convened (and failed) to address a unified response of international sanctuary for Jewish refugees. The annexation of Austria had been announced as a fait accompli, but Poland had not yet been invaded.

How many times have we heard it and said it, that “hindsight is twenty-twenty”? My curious attention often lingers on the threshold between Before and After. Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass (recently redesignated Night of Pogroms, to refuse the euphemism, the propagandistic terminology), was not a spontaneous riot; it was planned and organized. Somebody knew ahead of that night, plenty of somebodies. Many, apparently, prepared to coordinate and orchestrate, to choreograph a large-scale operation of terror and destruction. The targets already made obvious (if they weren’t) by virtue of signs and insignias: synagogues, certainly, and Jewish storefronts and homes. Jews on the streets. The legitimacy of the violence, followed by the outrageous demand (reason turned entirely upside down) that the Jews pay for the damaged property, that they “compensate” as if they were the perpetrators and not the victims. Such twisting ideology reinforced the blaming of them for what was done to them, a strategy dating both backwards and now forwards, a deplorable evolution of genocidal rage—that righteousness lies on the side of the killers, in order to defend so-called innocence and maintain the moral purity of the powerful.

Thus, Stalin as well as Mao as well as the Khmer Rouge murdered the “educated” en masse; thus the Hutus attacked the “elite” Tutsis; thus and thus and thus. Dehumanization of the enemy precedes the violence, makes it possible in the first place, and subsequently justifies it in the second place. In the name of, in the name of…

Language fails me, more often than not: the lack of distinction between a “survivor” of an accident—tragic, enormous—such as the sinking of the Titanic—and survivors of genocide—The Killing Fields, Auschwitz. How a word can be too easily employed (deployed!) and too vaguely understood. How we fail each time to calculate the significance of an individual and a group, how numbers both are and are not the point. How many bodies does it take before we use the term “mass grave”? More than two? Twenty? Two hundred?

Years from now, will we acknowledge our collective human culpability in the mass extinctions of species? Bees, for instance. Buffalo. Blue sky.

Time to re-read what Primo Levi wrote about shame—its necessary presence in order for humans to retain morality, a code of behavior to prevent evil; the importance of individual shame as well as that which belongs to the collective. Shame is missing in a sociopath: remorse, fear of consequences, an ability to consider the Other as having dimensional existence that is equivalent somehow to one’s own. Sound familiar?

 

9 November

“The worst happened,” says my father. “It’s unbelievable.” And then, with hardly a pause, he adds: “We must have hope. For the next four years.”

I can barely speak. Hope? Four years??

My father goes on. “That’s life. We have to live with adversity. Try not to take it so hard, okay?”

This outcome feels to me like death, and my reaction like sitting shiva. I remember such incongruity after my mother died sixteen years ago, my astonishment that the world can keep turning, the ordinary sun rising, the sky growing bright and blue, the birds opening their throats as usual. It’s Wednesday. Garbage trucks are groaning backwards up my narrow dead-end street, and the distant hum of the BART train floats up the canyon to my window. My dog Lulu waits patiently for me to get dressed and take her for a walk. My heart beats, faint but sure. I inhale and exhale.

Nothing has changed and everything has changed. All my terrors about Before and After: here we are. We (I want to say You, with pointing finger, but even this isn’t true, I am part of everything). We have placed a crown on the head of a dunce.

“He’s not another Hitler,” my father says when he calls me back later the same day. “I wanted to tell you that.”

I’d sent him the words I’d written about the election, on the day before.

“There are enough people in this country who would stand up against him.” My father the optimist, the patriot. He was freed from Buchenwald by Patton’s Third Army, his life literally saved by America’s fierce and relentless pursuit of “liberty and justice for all.”

“But all that power,” I say, feebly. “The presidency plus Congress plus the Supreme Court. It’s as close to absolute power as we get in this country.”

“I know,” he says. “But most Americans didn’t support him, didn’t vote for him. The majority of the people are oriented toward positive values and positive developments.”

I think of the sound of last night’s owl outside my friend Susan’s house in the hills, where we watched the election results in a state of shock. “Who? Who?? WHO???”

 

10 November

The day after The Day After.

Life insists on resuming, as if there isn’t even anything left to erase, to rinse away. All the broken glass swept up and vanished, blood stains scrubbed from the sidewalks, nothing hinting at the evidence except for boards haphazardly nailed across the gaping holes where store windows used to shine, transparent and welcoming, now sealed from the outside and emptied on the inside. That was 1938, of course. But in the next few days (and weeks? years?), swastikas will appear freshly painted on walls and windows.

“The past isn’t over, it isn’t even past.” Faulkner said it, and we all repeat it.

And so, we turn ourselves toward the present, focusing on today’s one foot in front of the other. I realize even now how much I remain not only my father’s daughter—i.e., fiercely determined to persevere against all odds (that was what he used to say he would entitle his memoir, Against All Odds)—I’m also my mother’s daughter, prone to catastrophize or fantasize, to brace for the worst and to dream for the best. Somewhere in my twisting strands of DNA I hold the paradox and the balance: the past inside the present, evolving me here, in the reality of what is.

He won, sort of. She lost, sort of.

“I was wrong,” my father says. “I didn’t think he would be elected. It’s a problem with the system, right? The majority of the voters did not support him, and yet he was elected with a minority. So that means our system has some flaws, in that it’s not always controlled by the majority.”

“You weren’t the only wrong one about that,” I say.

“In America it will not develop into the kind of catastrophe that happened in Germany,” he continues. “Germans are more likely to listen to and follow authority. There is a tendency by Germans to be trained to obey. Whereas in the U.S., kids generally oppose their parents.”

I laugh again. “I opposed you a lot,” I say.

“You see?” he says.

 

14 November

Is today day five or day six? Shiva lasts seven days, but then you take off your torn clothing and begin to resume your life. The beginning of the rest of your life.

But that’s not today. Today I’m still mourning. My clothes are still torn, my mirrors are still covered so I don’t have to see my own devastated face. Ashes at my temples, newly etched lines at the edges of my mouth, my eyes, these lines that will not disappear.

What is the use of these words? What can be said that will make any kind of difference, when the hypnosis has already taken over, the sleeping sickness, the plague of blindness, the willingness to look away, which is yet another way of participating in the nightmare.

The headlines report consideration (as “promised” during the campaign) of a Muslim registry, deportations by the millions, a cascade of white supremacist rhetoric that is astonishingly obvious. Now we hear reference to Japanese internment camps as a “useful” historical precedent. Each day brings a new horror. He doesn’t mean it. He does. He doesn’t have the power. He does.

 

And Yet, We Persist Against All Odds

December 2016 is halfway over, and winter solstice approaches. I wake up in the dark of early morning and find myself recalling the sound of my mother’s melodious voice, her never-vanished Polish accent. She is saying, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I don’t know if this is a phrase she adopted along with her adopted English, her adopted citizenship in America, or if it’s a loose translation from one of her many other languages. Although I think her tone may have occasionally bordered on wistful, even sarcastic, I would like to imagine that these words managed to tip the scales of her chronic sadness.

I carry not only my parents’ innumerable sorrows, but also their fierce commitment to staying alive. My mother believed in love, and my father believes (still!) in the possibilities of the future. What their own parents and grandparents may or may not have believed about themselves and their world, I also cannot know for certain. But on this particular threshold of time, this terribly fraught moment in history, I wonder if I can choose to place my faith in the unknown. My generation may be wired for extreme tendencies of hypervigilance and panic, but what if we are also wired for exceptional resilience and adaptation? What if things get worse AND better?

 

April 11, 2017

Winter solstice has come and gone, the darkest dark followed by the return of the light. The inauguration happened, and the Women’s March on Washington happened (I was there, too). Despair and hope have repeatedly taken turns dominating my inner thoughts. Resistance movements have been rising in direct proportion to the daily outrages of this administration (including the overt targeting of Muslims in the form of a “travel ban”). I can’t quite tell which one of us has so far been correct in our predictions — my father or me.

Today is extra complicated. It’s the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, seventy-two years ago. And in a most disturbing coincidence, Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, during a televised meeting with the press, has made my head explode. He is talking about Syrian president Assad’s use of sarin gas “on innocent people, his own people,” in contrast, Spicer says, with Hitler. Later, I watch a video of this moment, and I watch Spicer’s face as he speaks. I am searching for a split-second visual of his awareness, but it’s not there. He clearly doesn’t know what he has just said. When an off-screen reporter calls out the error, Spicer fumblingly corrects himself: “At the Holocaust centers, well, yes,” Spicer says. I continue to watch his face, but I see nothing that looks even fleetingly like regret.

“There’s no question that there will be damage, and significant damage, over the next few years,” my father says to me over the phone. “But I’m convinced that that damage can and will be reversed.”

His faith persists and mine falters. I watch the pages of the calendar turn, and turn again.