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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Night

Emma is reading "Night" by Elie Wiesel in her English class.  I realized when i was talking to a friend of mine that I had never read anything about the Holocaust.  Yes, this includes the Diary of Anne Frank.  I'm not sure how I escaped High School without having done so. 

Anyway, in an effort to aid her studies, I'm reading along with her so we can chat about it. 

Okay...the least well-received stuff I write is where I preach, so I promise I will try not to preach.  But I just can't help feeling alarmed at current events, and it's so timely that I'm reading this book at the same time and it probably makes me more sensitive to the parallels than I would typically be which makes me MORE worried.  Anyway.  This is a bit of a rant.

I haven't turned this into a Trump says this/does this sort of life lesson for Emma, but I do see some interesting parallels between what's rumored in the news about Trumps plans, this book about Mr. Wiesel's experiences being shipped off to Auschwitz, and several everyday anecdotal experiences that I shared with Emma.

So we're reading this book.  Have you read it?  I'm talking out some of the main points I took from the first two chapters with Emma and I just keep coming back to this one thing that really sticks in my head and my heart. 

They thought nothing like this could ever happen to them.  In "this day and age".  It was too inconvenient.  Too costly.  The Germans were on the verge of losing the war anyway, they thought. 

They talk about a foreign Jew, Moishe the Beadle.  He, and all the other foreign jews are forced to leave Elie's hometown of Sighet, then in Transylvania.  They send them away, but Moishe returns.  And he returns to tell the story about how they were sent to Ukraine and forced to dig a trench that they ultimately murdered the jews and shoved them in.  He returns to tell the Jews of Sighet how a father begged them to kill him so that he wouldn't have to watch them kill his sons in front of his eyes.  I guess he escaped.  I have to reread that piece.

And...

Nobody believes him.  They think he wants attention.  That he's crazy.  Whatever...That was in 1942.  Two years passed.  The book talks about how even Moishe stopped talking about his experience.  I guess by then he was tired of talking to people who wouldn't listen. 

The Germans come to Sighet though.  They come to Sighet and they're billeted with families in their homes.  Even in the Jews' homes.  And it's inconvenient but they're pretty polite and everyone seems to get along, so they just sort of adjust to the new normal.

Then they're forbidden to keep gold or valuables, forced to wear a star to show that they're jewish, forbidden to leave their homes for three days...and all that sucks...but you know...it's not like they're going to systematically murder them.  Right?

And then they pushed the Jews out of their homes and into two ghettos.  Moishe the Beadle runs door to door basically yelling "I TOLD YOU FUCKERS!!" and runs off without waiting for a reply.  That quote is mine, by the way, but Wiesel talks about it happening.  Families living with families.  They black out the windows facing out into the city.  They surround the ghetto with barbed wire. I tried to put that into context for Emma.  Someone comes to our house and tells us we have to move.  Right away.  We all have to move to one community and live in a house with other families.  They're taking our house.  

And the Jews...some of them think...this is actually a good thing.  Now we don't have to see all their glaring angry faces.  Now we're all together.  We can be with our own people.  This is okay.  And they adjust.  It's not like we're being systematically murdered.  We're good.  We've got this.

And everyone gets used to it.  Until they tell them they're getting on transports.  Everyone is to leave their homes.  Stand outside.  Roll call.  They're forbidden to get food or water.  They stand in the summer sun for hours waiting to be called.  Some are and off they go on the train.  Some stay behind waiting for the next day.

And the Jews...now they're speculating...where are we being sent.  And some of them are like "Hey...this could be for our own safety.  They're sending us away from the fighting.  The Red Army is marching here...we'd have been on the front.  This is actually a good thing."

Elie and his family don't get sent on the first transports.  They're sent to the other ghetto to live.  Their family's old maid makes an appearance and tells them that she has a safe place outside Sighet where they can all stay, but Elie's father is like "Nah, we're good.  The kids can go if they want but I'm staying with my wife here."  And I want to shout at the book.  GO YOU FOOL!  But I also get it.  They really think..."this can't possibly be as bad as all that." 

So a few days go by and again the Jewish community settles down.  This is cool.  We've got this.  It's too late, they think.  It took too long, they think.  They're just going to keep us here.  But they didn't.  They loaded them on the train after roll calls for hours in the hot summer sun without water. 

And I won't tell all of the story of chapters 1 - 3, but...the train ride is standing room only.  80 to a car.  You can't lie down.  All of them can't sit at once.  They have to sit in shifts.  For DAYS.  DAYS!!!  And I again try to put it into perspective for Emma.  How hard it is to sit...SIT in an airport waiting for the plane.  And it's delayed for a few hours.  And it's boring and sucks and Lily is pissed and we're all frustrated.  But...instead of hours it's days.  Instead of sitting it's standing.  Instead of a comfortable chair it's standing shoulder to shoulder with other people.  No air. 

One last little bit from the book.  They get to Auschwitz.  They see the chimney.  Choke on the smoke of their dead.  SEE children fed to the fire like logs.  They are interviewed.  Marched.  They don't know where.  Did they say the right stuff or the wrong.  They've already been separated men from women, so Elie's mother and three sisters are nowhere to be found.  And the young men in the group start finally thinking...REALLY thinking about their mortality.  And that this is it.  That they really are truly going to their deaths.  And they start thinking...fuck this, we'll get these Nazi bastards...BUT....

The older members of the group TALKED THEM DOWN!  Relax...this isn't as bad as it looks.  Don't die for nothing. 

Okay...end of book report for Chapters 1 - 3 of "Night".  Now on to my own experience. 

At once I am both amazed and understanding of their failure to rise up.  The herd mentality I suppose. I enumerated all these "signs" to Emma.  They ignored Moishe, and giving up their valuables, and barbed wire and ghettos and transports and even smoking chimneys.  It couldn't happen to them.  How could it??

Sometimes I would take Leslie to Chemo treatments at Magee hospital in Pittsburgh.  We were on the fourth floor I think.  I can't really remember.  One week the fire alarm went off.  I looked around.  Nobody moved.  It continued to ring.  Finally I got up and talked to the nurse.  "Oh, they'll probably make an announcement about it in a minute or two."  They never did.  The fire alarm was going off and nobody even BUDGED.  Couldn't be a fire.  We all waited for someone to tell us that the alarm was actually real.  Like that shrieking klaxon couldn't be believed because..."it can't REALLY be a fire."

And the uprising too...everyone waiting for someone else to make a move.  Someone else to step forward and make a stand.  I was telling Emma how when I was going to college I worked in a mine.  They made you watch like two hours of safety videos.  One of the videos talked about how in a crisis everyone will stand around and watch but do nothing.  Even if someone is...say administering CPR to an unconscious victim, if that person says, "Call 911!" to the group, nobody will move...because everyone is thinking...'someone else will do it'...or 'someone else probably already did it'.  And I told her they teach you to point to a person and say, "YOU!  Call 911!" because that's the only way anyone will move. 

And so now we're talking about building walls.  And we're scared of terrorism so we're talking about registering Muslims like they're Jews in Nazi Germany.  And random racial violence and rejoicing seems like it's sporadically bursting out all over the country because people see our president-elect's silence to be tacit approval of their "making America great" by shouting racial epithets or spray painting people's houses, or leaving them notes about how they should go back to Africa or "get the fuck out" of our country because that's apparently what will make it great in their minds.

Today I was looking up Martin Niemöller's poem.  Do you know it?  I think it's pretty telling.  Niemöller was a protestant in Germany who felt good people were complicit in the atrocities that happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany.  They were complicit because they were "good" but didn't do more to stop it all from happening.  His poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Are we on the cusp of that?  Are we on the cusp of people "coming for the _________"?  It could never happen here.  Never!  You know...just like the Jews of Sighet said before the trains came to carry them to the fucking FURNACE.  I've seen a lot of heinous racist bullshit on facebook this past week.  Basically people pointing out that...you know how everyone feels like this is an enlightened age and racism is soooo much better than it ever was...that sort of thing...these sorts of posts fly in the face of that blissful ignorance.  There are PLENTY of racists still alive and well and happy to raise a little hell in the name of their Fuhr...er...president-elect. 

White Supremacists praised Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon.  Glenn Beck...let me say that again...GLENN BECK even knows that's ridiculous.  He says of Bannon...Stephen Bannon gave a voice to white nationalists.  Awesome choice.  What the fuck.

Everyone loves Jon Stewart.  He's talking me down.  A little.  He said, "We also have to caution ourselves to the complexity of that history,” he said. “I thought Donald Trump disqualified himself at numerous points. But there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. There are guys in my neighborhood who I love, I respect, that I think have incredible qualities – that are not afraid of Mexicans and not afraid of Muslims and not afraid of blacks. They’re afraid of their insurance premiums.”

So yeah...people voted for Trump for a lot of different reasons.  BUT...here we are.

And while insurance premiums are important, and a good economy is important, and free enterprise and homeland security and all that is important.  I see a guy with no plan to achieve that.  I see what's happening in the news and think..."Did you all just basically sign a deal with the devil?"  The ink is still wet on the signature that implies..."I don't care what happens to the rest of the country, as long as I have a solid interest rate, don't have to send my kids to war, and can hold onto my job, amen."

I'm not ready to claim that Trump will be Hitler.  I'm just saying...are you afraid at ALL of what this country could look like in four years?  I kinda am.

I just don't want to be writing poems or books about how we all ignored the signs...you know the signs I mean, right?  Basically everything Trump has said or done in the past two years plus his body of work prior.  Those kinds of signs.  I just don't want to ignore the signs when something even worse starts happening here.  Like we all did in cancer ward.  Like the Jews of Sighet did. 







7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this, Jim. I've been doing a lot (probably too much, to the detriment of sleeping) of thinking since Election Day, and a lot of what you're saying here has been going through my mind, as well. (I've never read "Night," although I've read a lot of other Holocaust literature - I should probably pick it up one of these days. I read two WWII books back-to-back recently and was too broken to read any more for a bit.) Sending you good thoughts & much love.

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  2. I teach Anne Frank and the Holocaust every year, and every year I see new and disturbing parallels to today. And every year, my heart breaks some more.

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  3. You can preach to me anytime, cause I'm right there with you. I see it and I'm scared. Thanks for being brave enough to speak.

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  4. It's important to recognize that these things can happen and have. I've thought for so long, "but how could they have let that happen? How did so many bystanders allow that?" A lot of it makes sense to me.

    My son is a miracle. It's a miracle that my husband's grandfather was able to escape when his father and brothers were captured and killed in auschwitz. I think about it often. Here's this 2 year old boy learning Hebrew prayers and participating in some of our traditions and his great great grandfather was murdered for just being.

    I'm scared about what will happen. Not just for the Jews, who can easily blend in and "pass" for "white", but for other minorities who cannot; including our daughter with autism. She would be on their list.

    What a gift you're giving Emma by not only sharing this time together, but sharing ideas, thoughts, experiences, hopes and fears. You are the best of the best, Jim.

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    1. *a lot of it makes sense to me NOW, watching this in real time. It's like the lobster in water that's slowly getting hotter and hotter until he can't even tell he's boiling. Mmmm lobster.

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  5. I've been thinking of that poem too. I'm scared. We have to stay vigilant.

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  6. I've been having all the same thinks. Maybe we need to re-read this post monthly for the next four years to see what's happening-- or hopefully not happening. My default when I'm stressed is to stick my head in the sand. I'll try to remember Moishe. (I read the book at her age too.)

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