This post has been sitting in various places, half-written, for several weeks now. Parts of it are on my laptop; parts have been printed out and left in pieces on the coffee table. A few notes flutter out of my journal where I stuck them several weeks ago.
It would seem I’d rather not finish the post, and, at least on one level, that’s true. But another part of me aches for the remembrance then and the sense of helplessness now, as history repeats itself.
So push has come to shove: April 25th is the day set aside annually for the commemoration of the Holocaust. It is the day to remember those millions of souls who vanished into silence during the Second World War. Today the post gets written, or it gets consigned to oblivion.
This is a personal story. It is not the tale of a Holocaust survivor, but a recollection of shame about my family — a feeling that is fading as I observe myself in the same position my mother occupied when it was her turn to watch what the Western world does to Jews.
I was raised a devout Roman Catholic. My mother was born and lived in Ireland until her marriage to my father — a union which happened to coincide with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Having been swept off her feet by this handsome American, what relevance could a Blitzkrieg possibly have to my mother’s life?
As it transpired, very little. My mother was an intelligent woman, but she was not an intellectual. She read devotional books, or an occasional novel. The larger world held little interest for her, and, until she became an American citizen fifteen years after her arrival here, I never even heard her discuss politics. Apolitical people like my mother are not unusual; even so, looking back at the history through which she lived, I find it hard to comprehend how little it meant to her. On the other hand, being an alien resident with a green card, always feeling that at any moment she could be sent back, Mother did not live at the forefront of her life. Only after friends pushed her through the process of applying for citizenship, only after taking the oath and being able to check the box “U.S. Citizen” on forms — only then did she relax enough to look at the headlines. Now she belonged; now she could vote. Her very first presidential election was Adlai Stevenson and Eisenhower. The image of my mother wobbling off on my bike to vote for the first time remains distinct.
My exposure to history as a child was mostly the 1950s version of the patriotic American story. The threat of Communism was very real to Catholic schoolchildren in those days. We knew about the imprisonment of Cardinal József Mindszenty, and prayed for him. The burgeoning parochial school system was dedicated to producing assimilated American Catholic children — very definitely, Red-White-and-Blue Catholics is what we were.
If history classes touched on the Holocaust, I do not remember it. What I do recall, as freshly as if it happened last month, was my introduction to the images of the concentration camps. The program, narrated by Edward R. Murrow, riveted me to the television screen.
This was my first brush with Evil, up close and unrelenting. By the time the program was over, I was (I now know) in a state of shock. I had just been traumatized by the enormity of our human capacity for malevolence. My innocence was a dead, useless skin, quickly molted and left behind. I remember being angry as only idealistic adolescents can be. When my mother returned — she had been at some devotional at church — I was beside myself. In fact, from then on I could understand what that phrase meant.
I confronted her at the door, tears streaming down my face. Her instant maternal alarm quickly dissolved when she learned the source of my distress.
“Oh, that thing about the concentration camps,” she said, waving it away. “I heard they were going to show that.”
I was stunned. “You mean you knew about it?”
“Oh, vaguely. Your father and I got the last boat out of Liverpool to come to America. I remember U-boats following us all the way through international waters. Down in steerage there were crowds of people. Most of them had tattoos. I knew they’d been in some prisons Hitler set up for the Jews. They were a sad lot.”
In my whole life this was the only time I ever wanted to hit my mother. How could she?
“How could you just ignore it? Why didn’t you do something?”
Mother looked at me as though as though I were speaking Greek, as though I were the alien. I hated her callous dismissal of a part of history that was up close and unspeakably inhuman.
Eventually I quit asking her questions. Later, as an adult, I realized how anxious and scared she’d been herself through those years. With the passage of enough time I even forgave her, as children do, though my whole-hearted respect never returned.
In the days following my discovery, it was hard to think of anything else. When I lay down at night, the images of those stacked bodies and the slack-jawed living skeletons would not permit me a luxury like sleep. If I slept, then I would be equally complicit with those who had permitted these atrocities.
Slowly, I became fiercely pro-Israel. I even considered converting to Judaism as a kind of reparation. Of course, I never said this out loud. I lived in a Catholic ghetto; though I never ever heard any anti-Semitic remarks, I was on an island of Catholics in a sea of Southern Baptists. Jews — as evidenced by Israel — were admirable but exotic.
As I matured and witnessed and cheered Israel’s survival, I learned more about the rich history of Jews in America. I read with a shiver of pride George Washington’s Letter to the Jewish congregation in Rhode Island. Heartened by Israel’s “Never Again”, I knew with certainty that “Never in America” was an absolute. I read Jewish biographies like Harry Golden’s For Two Cents Plain, books about urban Jewish childhoods. I envied the survival instincts of these, my religious forebears.
As Palestine became the darling of the Left, I moved right. Up until now, I’d always seen my conservative philosophy as arising from my economic principles, and that is certainly true. But, above all, it was my solidarity with Israel which slowly evolved into a militant stand against those of my fellow citizens who seemed to hate America and Israel equally. When I would occasionally (and then more frequently) meet a pro-Palestinian Jew, the cognitive dissonance made me queasy. Their outlook, to me, was either insane or perverted. I still think this.
Life comes full circle in more ways than one can imagine in adolescence. Reading Shrinkwrapped’s description of the increasingly desperate straits of Stockholm’s Jews, I am now in same helpless position my mother once occupied. The fact that I am more informed than she was does not render me more competent to do anything. The fact that I know she and I were and are part of a larger historical wave of Western self-destruction does not provide surcease.
The most bizarre and perverted aspect of this phenomenon of self-hatred is the denial of the Holocaust itself. This symptom of our cultural depravity, even if it exists only on the fringes, is deeply disturbing for what it portends for the future of the West. If we are denied our remembrance of the past — and 9/11 is now entering this “VERBOTEN” zone — then what are we?
What are we, with no history?
My intent is to continue, by whatever means I have, to wrest from the culture-killers and the memory-hole guardians, the haters and the equivocators, their prominence of place in the American landscape.
Otherwise, what is the point?