When I was Twenty-One . . .
When I was twenty-one in 1974, I spent two days at Dachau Concentration Camp in upper Bavaria. It was preserved as a memorial for all those who had died there: communists and social democrats, dissidents, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, criminals, gypsies, Roman Catholic clergy and nuns—but more predominately, Jewish families—muters and foters, kinder and babes in arms, zaydes and bubbes, aunties and patriarchs of ancient families.
Back then I knew some of the history of the infamous concentration camps and the Holocaust, but witnessing the darkness and solemnity of such a place—displays depicting images of medical experiments, photographs of gaunt hollowed out human beings, rooms filled with shoes, shorn hair, the gas chambers and crematoriums, and more—the capacity of man’s inhumanity to man—was driven home to me. I toured those haunted grounds where so many died, tiptoeing across the now grassy lawns and fields, fearful that I was walking on graves. That land imbued me with a sense of responsibility to understand and speak out.
I lived in Germany for the next year in a beautiful town rebuilt on rubble from allied bombings, while most nights those Dachau images haunted my dreams. When I returned to the United States, I attended discussion groups at the beautiful synagogue around the corner from where I lived. I needed to process what I had seen. I needed to understand.
How did Germany get to such a place where everyday people turned their backs on their neighbors and friends? It began with crippling inflation, families not able to feed their children, and the rise of authoritarianism with its companions of xenophobia, nationalism, and punitive policies. The ills of the post Great War society were blamed on the Jews and others viewed as different or separate. Germany was not the only country in the 1930s that succumbed to similar political urges; Italy, Romania, Spain, Poland, Japan, and more dove down the same rabbit hole.
Many of those countries were wooed on the drunken politics of powerful leaders who could spin the truth into gossamer promises. In short, people hungry for change and a better life hitched their wagons to thinly veiled lies; prevarications that served those politicians who spewed hatred and fear. The only regard those leaders had for their true believers was how they could be used.
We are now in a time of rising authoritarian and nationalistic politics, disregarding the history of the twentieth century. After all, few World War II vets are still with us, including my father, who died two years ago at the age of eighty-nine. I am thankful he is not here to witness what is happening to his beloved country.
Once again in countries across the globe, discrimination, targeting people of particular races and religions, blaming others for the ills of society are rampant and on the rise, and like many others, I am worried.
I read posts on social media that suggest that the fear and worry that so many feel in the United States and around the world regarding the rise of nationalism is just whining and bellyaching. Suggestions demand that those who are worried, who speak out, who protest should “Just get over it.”
I am disheartened by such shortsighted calls to disregard compassion, to dismiss history, including our own. Yet most of these posters cite respect and God. I agree wholeheartedly, but invoking a higher power, truth, and respect is not a one-way street. We each owe respect to everyone: immigrants, people who practice religions dissimilar from our own, and to people whose political views we find disagreeable.
The United States began in protest against British rule by people seeking religious freedom, and was rooted in an organic impetus toward self governing from Jamestown to Plymouth. Our then fledgling country and the founding fathers agreed to the great and messy experiment of democracy, inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome, the Protestant Reformation, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and particularly John Locke. It involved passionate disagreement, angry words giving way to wary respect, discourse, and compromise. To suggest that our current disagreements should involve less is to turn toward a dangerous and self-destructive course. We live in a time where compromise comes with the stink of bad cheese, yet eventually, compromise we must.
In the end, our politics are not about who sits in the White House, or the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the Supreme Court. They are about we the people and the Fourth Estate, about our engagement and passion, about our abilities to examine all sides, to read and listen to the arguments, to consider carefully before coming to a conclusion, to think critically, to question, to protest, to argue, to respect, and most of all, to maintain our compassion for all peoples. Let us not forget how we enslaved African Americans and starved the First Nations people . . . We have been flawed since the beginning, as are all humans and societies.
Fair Warning: We do not need more memorials to more dead innocents, others who were different, whom we blamed, and on whom we turned our backs. Don’t we at least owe this to our children?