In less than a week, millions of my fellow Americans will step into voting booths and flip levers for Donald J. Trump, a man so categorically unfit to lead our nation that the prospect of his presidency has literally kept me awake at night, terrified. Terrified for myself. Terrified for my two young sons. Terrified for the future of our democracy. Terrified.
How, I keep wondering, can they not see the very clear danger that Trump represents? How on earth could anyone possibly see him as the “lesser of two evils?” I can only assume that anyone who believes this has had the luxury of thinking of evil as an abstraction, the luxury of having no intimate knowledge of the evil that fuels genocide. My family, unfortunately, has not had that privilege.
Because of all the many reasons I will not vote for Donald Trump, perhaps the most pressing is a family heirloom: a letter written in January of 1939, when a 43-year-old Polish businessman named Shmiel Jäger swallowed his pride and appealed to a cousin in New York for financial help.
Alluding to the “troubles” Jewish business owners had been facing in Poland, Jäger explained that one of his trucks had been destroyed and he needed to replace it so as not to lose his business permit. (“I’m the only Jew in our community business board who even had a permit for a truck,” he wrote.) He didn’t want to ask his siblings, he explained somewhat sheepishly, out of fear that they would get “terribly worried.”
But while the correspondence begins with a dispassionate request for money and a vague allusion to “troubles,” by April, Jäger writes of being “gripped with constant terror.” And by the fall of that same year, Shmiel Jäger would quite literally be begging for his life.
”As long as there’s some possibility of getting me out of here, do what you can,” he wrote to his sister in the last letter anyone would ever receive from him. “For my part, I am going to post a letter, written in English, to Washington, addressed to President Roosevelt and will write that all my siblings and my entire family are in America… perhaps that will work… I really want to get away from this hell with my dear wife and such darling four children.”
Four years after Shmiel Jäger mailed that letter out of Bolechow, Poland, not a single member of his family—not he, his “dear wife” Ester, or any of their “darling four children,” the youngest only 12—would still be alive. I know this story because my grief-wracked grandfather carried those letters from his brother in his breast pocket until the day he died. My 9-year-old son is named in memory of one of those “darling” children.
Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, whose virulent anti-Semitism led to the murders of the Jäger family and millions of others. Nothing Donald Trump has said or proposed to date, however maddeningly ill-informed or bigoted, suggests he is masterminding genocide. But the tactics Trump is using, and the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic passions he is inflaming, are nonetheless chillingly reminiscent of the environment in which Hitler’s murderous plan was hatched, right down to Trump’s insistence that “he alone” can save America, his lack of a concrete plan to do so notwithstanding.
When video emerged of a young African-American woman being jostled and taunted at a Trump rally last March, the hatred on her tormentors’ sneering faces stirred something so visceral and familiar in me I began to cry. “You’re scum, your time will come,” a Trump supporter yelled at her. Perhaps not surprisingly, a Jewish anti-Trump movement has emerged on social media using the eerie hashtag #weveseenthisbefore.
We are told again and again not to be alarmed by Trump’s words. His boasts of sexual assault were just “locker room talk.” He was “just joking” when he asked non-Christians to identify themselves and wondered if they should be “allowed to stay” at a rally in Iowa. “Calm down,” a Trump supporter chided me on Facebook. “We badly need a little comedy relief every now and then. It’s refreshing.”
“We need not be apocalyptic about it,” wrote columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an otherwise astute column about Trump’s dangerous rhetoric in The New York Times. “This is not Kristallnacht.”
But I implore those who plan to vote for Donald Trump to stop and recognize that Kristallnacht was not Kristallnacht…until it was Kristallnacht. Fill the air with the poison gas of bigotry and all it takes is one lit match to start a conflagration.
The Holocaust didn’t first manifest itself fully realized, with cattle cars and tattooed arms and gas chambers. It grew slowly, insidiously, over a period of time. It began with bullying and vague threats, with bigoted hate speech, scapegoating, and propaganda. It began with sneers and taunts. It began with bans and registries and subtle slights to dignity. It began with seemingly insignificant bureaucratic “troubles” over truck permits.
And it began with people downplaying the seriousness of a popular politician’s troubling rhetoric. “Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded,” read one 1922 news story.
We now have the precious gift of hindsight with which to assess the horrors of the Holocaust. We know the story’s grim ending. We can rewind the tape and see exactly how things spun so horribly out of control and how “troubles” devolved into the execution of children. If Shmiel Jäger had been scared for his life in January of 1939, when he sat down to write a letter to his cousin about a truck permit, wouldn’t you have told him to “calm down” too? But it’s that first letter I return to again and again. If only we had known.
We can only hope that one day we won’t be rewinding the tape on a Trump presidency, trying to pinpoint the equivalent moment where it all went so wrong, where the match was lit and the ugly rhetoric and fear-mongering crossed over into something far darker. We can only hope that Donald Trump’s rhetoric will never lead to another Kristallnacht. We can only hope that another man won’t have to carry his doomed brother’s haunting final letters out of Trump’s America, wondering if he could have done more to save him.
But we are obligated by the lessons of history not to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. We are obligated by the lessons of history to repudiate bigotry, categorically and unequivocally, to stop nascent demagoguery before it has the chance to go too far. It would be unconscionable to pretend we don’t know exactly where the path that begins this way has led. We must be vigilant about making sure we never go down it again. Never. Again.