I grew up with Holocaust Survivor parents who never stopped talking about their wartime experiences.
As a child in 1960’s and 70’s America, I couldn’t imagine why my parents were filled with so much gloom and doom.
I was filled with bursting optimism, after all. I’d grown up sheltered in Skokie among a large Jewish population, feeling certain that the whole world was filled with little brunette Jewish girls just like me, and that everyone had my set of concerns: playing “Fiddler on the Roof” on the piano for her parents, getting a gold Jewish star necklace for Hanukkah like all my friends, and getting invited to all the b’nai mitzvot the year I was 13.
But my parents insisted that the Nazis would come again. Not “if” but “when,” like we should plan for this eventuality. It was a big discussion among them and my aunts and uncles whether you could ever trust any government, and whether it was okay to have immobile assets.
My parents, the first in the group to buy a home, were considered some kind of crazy optimists for putting down roots. To survivors like all of them, mobility was everything. How could you pack up and escape if you owned a house? If your wealth was locked up in a piece of land, a boxy brick house on a boxy Chicago lot on a tree-lined street that looked like a piece of heaven, how could you stuff all that in a suitcase and go hide in the forest?
Yet, I was filled with postwar glow and optimism. I couldn’t imagine why my parents thought the Nazis would ever come back, because they seemed so distant to me. They had been roundly defeated in World War II, right? Everyone knew that Hitler lost the war, didn’t they? He claimed he’d have a 1,000 year Reich but it had only lasted 12 years, ending with him in a bunker alone, a suicide, which, my parents said, was too easy an end for him.
I was sure that what I knew to be true the whole world knew to be true: that the Nazis were some evil aberration in history, a poisonous sickness spreading from a madman to the rest of his country, and then, through war, from country to country; the descent of a civilized country into madness which left whole cities and countries devastated, populations wiped out and displaced. Everyone knew this, right? Could it be possible they didn’t?
Everyone knew that it was wrong to hate Jews! And certainly, everyone knew that it was evil to hate Jews so much that you might march into a town, have them unwittingly dig their own grave and shoot them in layers into it? Or to transport them to work camps to be worked to death or to death camps to be gassed to death and their bodies burned. The photographs of piles of skeletal bodies taken by American GIs who liberated the camps–these were enough evidence that this was sick and wrong and never to be repeated, weren’t they?
And the crimes recorded by the Nazis themselves and retained by postwar Germany showing the ultimate fate of Jewish name after Jewish name–we could all agree that this never needed to be repeated.
When I was seventeen there was sudden unreality of a bunch of ragtag “Neo Nazis” in Chicago who wanted to march in Skokie. I still had a hard time taking it seriously, believing these to be some fringe lunatics and pathetic losers who liked shiny metals and Nazi paraphernalia, but my mother sat day after day, staring at the TV in our Scottsdale family room in rapt horror watching the Nazis rise again.
And then the years after, all the way up to this past weekend in Charlottesville: Holocaust denial, hate groups, white supremacy, “alt-right,” Ku Klux Klan, and, yes, people claiming the Nazi symbol as their own with anti-Semitism and racism at the core of each group, all purportedly coming together to “protect” a Confederate statute from coming down.
Now I’m the pessimist.
With my mother gone and my father gone, I’m the one teetering on the edge of my couch watching the news raptly, watching my news feeds, expecting the worst, wondering when we’ll have to pack our bags and take refuge somewhere else, wondering whether it really is a grand folly to trust a government, to buy a home.
I wonder when I see that the concepts that Hitler introduced into the world haven’t died but continue to reverberate among sick and twisted people from decade to decade, when I see that the existence of the Holocaust itself and the crisis of faith its existence causes for Jews who give up their belief, I wonder, am I wrong?
Have I been wrong all along?