Today begins the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom against Jews that took place across Germany and in parts of Austria on November 9th and 10th, 1938. Over the course of those two days, Germans smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burned synagogues, and committed deadly violence against Jews in the streets. Many consider the mass destruction that took place then to have marked a shift from ongoing, rampant anti-semitism to the official beginning of the Holocaust.
As a kid, in the ’70s, although I was occasionally made fun of for being Jewish, I thought that level of hatred and violence toward Jews had been relegated permanently to the past. But now, 80 years after Kristallnacht, I’m seeing I was wrong. Anti-semitism is on the rise again — in Europe, South America, the United States, everywhere.
It’s in my city of Kingston, New York, too. In my neighborhood. On my street.
If you would have told me when I was 15 — or even 45 (I’m 53) — that in 2018 I’d be writing a post about the danger of Holocaust history repeating itself, I would have called you crazy. But that’s what this is.
Lately I keep hearing different versions of this story from non-religious Jewish friends, so I’ll share mine:
Throughout my childhood on Long Island, I was reminded every year (in both Hebrew school and secular school) about the atrocities the Nazis committed against Jews and others. Over and over we were shown the same horrific news reels featuring emaciated men, women and children in striped uniforms, the star of David embroidered on their arm bands.
As a kid, in the ’70s, although I was occasionally made fun of for being Jewish, I thought that level of hatred and violence toward Jews had been relegated permanently to the past.
Never again! became a familiar refrain. After hearing it enough times, I came, naively, to assume that such unspeakable horror never could happen again, that everyone in the world agreed it never should. Who could know about that history and choose to repeat it? I was certain that, by and large, humanity had learned and evolved, and couldn’t possibly slip back in the other direction.
I grew tired of being constantly bombarded with this information. I also began to have mixed feelings about my identity.
When I was 15, on the ride home from Hebrew school, I announced to my (clergyman) father, “By the way? I’m not Jewish anymore.”
It was 1980 and the Catholic boy he’d made me break up with had just made the football team. Not only that, the boy was now going out with a girl who’d taken to bullying me, in part because of my background. This being Jewish business was not working out for me socially. It also wasn’t working for me philosophically. Organized religion struck me as divisive, keeping people apart. I didn’t buy what I was being taught in Hebrew school and history class about the occupation of Palestine and the creation of Israel. I couldn’t make sense of how people who’d been persecuted and displaced could turn around and persecute and displace other people. Also, the patriarchal aspects of Judaism and other Abrahamic faiths didn’t jibe with my budding feminism.
“Well,” my father replied, loudly, “Someday when they start rounding up Jews again, they won’t care whether or not your believe, or worship, or call yourself Jewish! They’ll take you anyway, just like they did with the secular Jews in Europe in the ’30s!”
I rolled my eyes. He’s being hysterical, I thought. The idea of anything like the Holocaust ever happening again anywhere, let alone the United States of America, seemed preposterous.
For emphasis my dad added, “Trust me — you’ll want to always have a current passport, so you can flee the country at any moment if you need to.”
“Whatever, Dad,” I said, tired of arguing and fairly certain I wasn’t going to get through to him.
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What I didn’t know then — and thanks to assorted family politics and estrangements had to learn on my own last year from Ancestry.com — is that my father’s uncle, my grandfather’s brother, Alberto de Botton, who’d stayed behind in Thessaloniki, Greece, when the family immigrated to the US before the first World War, was imprisoned in several concentration camps over many years. He and others were rescued on April 13th, 1945 by American forces, who intercepted a train headed from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt, where the Jewish passengers were to have been killed.
The specter of deadly anti-semitism was much realer for my father than it was for me. Maybe if he’d told me about his uncle, it would have felt more real to me. When I asked him recently why he hadn’t told me about his uncle, he couldn’t think of an answer, other than that he’d been estranged from his father, and his father and his family had been estranged from Alberto.
It’s been 38 years since that first of many similar arguments. It turns out my attitude wasn’t merely adolescent rebellion; in my 50s, I still have complicated feelings about organized religion, Judaism, and the state of Israel. I respect and uphold other people’s choice to practice whatever religion they want, but they don’t always respect my choice not to. I can’t tell you how many Jews and non-Jews alike — some of whom I barely know — feel free to lecture me about this and call me a self-hating Jew for my objections.
It annoys me that when I meet new people, they make assumptions about my beliefs and practices and politics because “Jewish” doesn’t only describe an ethnicity, and it’s hard for people to separate it out from the other things it refers to. It annoys me that my cultural identity is bound up, wholly, in a faith I don’t practice. It didn’t keep me from marrying a lapsed Catholic, but I’m envious that when you subtract religion from my husband’s identity, he gets to be Italian and Irish, whereas despite my ancestors’ many years in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Greece, and Turkey, I am not considered to be of any of those places.
But now, such annoyances are trivial. Under the Trump presidency, I have more dire concerns. Our president is emboldening white nationalists and American Nazis, who have begun threatening and committing violence against Jews and vandalizing Jewish establishments. I promise you those people aren’t interested in the subtle distinctions I make for myself about my cultural identity. They don’t care whether or not I attend synagogue, or whether I’m troubled by the colonialist racism and violence behind the creation of Israel. They don’t care that I’ve labeled myself an Agnostic Ethical Humanist; they call me a Jew, and they’ll be as likely to hurt or kill me as they would anyone else with my lineage — and immigrants, people of color, people who are non-binary and not heterosexual.
From the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville (after which I nervously thought to check my passport and, discovering it had expired, I panicked), to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, to the synagogue in Brooklyn where Ilana Glazer’s speaking engagement had to be canceled, anti-semitic expression and violence are on the rise.
Three weeks ago it showed up where I live.
It’s entirely possible these events aren’t related, but their proximity, chronologically and geographically, strikes me as notable: Saturday night, October 20th, a fundraiser was held for Antonio Delgado, the Black candidate for congress in New York’s 19th district, along with other Democratic candidates. It took place at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Midtown, Kingston, New York — a three-block walk from my house. Afterward, in the early hours of Sunday, October 21th, seven spray-painted swastikas appeared around a fairly wide swath of the neighborhood, including my street. They were drawn backwards, and alongside some of them were painted stars and “666.”
A week later, in the wake of the murder of 11 Jews at a bris in Pittsburgh, the Kingston Police Department issued a press release about the graffiti that was meant to calm the public, but which I found alarming in many ways.
It said they’d determined that the perpetrators had been four 12-year-olds who’d done it “for shock value rather than hate,” and this meant it wasn’t something for the public to be concerned about. The release stated that:
They were not spreading an ideology or belief, nor were they targeting any one individual, group, or entity in particular. Although this crime struck many emotions in our community, it was not motivated by bias of race, sex, religion or other prejudice.
I posted a Hudson Valley One article about it on my Facebook page with the comment, “This is what tweens are learning to do,” and musing in another comment that those tweens were likely white since the cops in our city have often been accused of racist treatment of Black and Hispanic residents, and would likely not have been minimizing the perpetrators’ actions if they weren’t white.
I can’t help but recall what I learned in Hebrew school about the German police being told not to interfere with the rioters on Kristallnacht.
Many Facebook friends agreed with me, and commented with the same questions I had in my mind: How do you know a 12-year-old doesn’t harbor hatred or racist thoughts or beliefs? Because they didn’t want to get in trouble, so that’s what they said? Who were they trying to shock? What do they know about the “shock value” of those symbols? Who’s influencing these kids? Their parents? Our President? Why aren’t we worried about young people picking up these messages?
Other Facebook friends surprised me by defending the police and their press release, and taking issue of my skepticism and criticism, one saying I was “vilifying” the cops. One said the 12-year-olds shouldn’t have to bear the burden of what was happening on the national stage, and that person and others assumed I was suggesting harsh punishment for the 12-year-olds. When someone asked about that, I explained that instead I thought they should be educated about anti-semitism and white nationalism. Show them the news reels I was shown, over and over. Let them spend some time talking with Holocaust survivors. A couple of people argued that because the swastikas were backwards, and because “unrelated” 666s and stars appeared next to some of them, that the kids were ignorant of the Nazi symbol’s meaning. I pointed out that members of the Aryan Brotherhood often get tattooed with “666,” “the number of the beast.” And, hmmm, what could a star symbolize…
I was alarmed by the KPD’s minimizing and dismissive messaging, normalizing the incident, and the residents’ wholesale, unquestioning acceptance of it. That press release didn’t make me feel any safer — it made me feel less safe.
I wanted the police to say that this was of the utmost concern at this time, given what’s happening on the national stage; that residents of Kingston who are Jewish, Black, and Hispanic, could trust that the police were taking this seriously, and were going to make sure those kids were educated about racism, anti-semitism, white nationalism and the Holocaust.
The messaging also makes me worry that the KPD doesn’t have enough awareness and sensitivity to these things, themselves. An article in the New York Times Magazine last week about American Law Enforcement having underestimated the threat of white nationalism reinforced this concern.
How much of the KPD’s attitude toward this is influenced by our current administration’s attitude? I can’t help but recall what I learned in Hebrew school about the German police being told not to interfere with the rioters on Kristallnacht.
I’m not saying antisemitism and racism ever went away in this country, and that now it’s suddenly come back. Recently, though, there has been a surge in hate crimes against Jews. I fear it’s only the beginning, and I’m certain it’s being propelled by our scapegoating president and the (seemingly ever-growing) conspiracist wing of the Republican party.
It’s seductive to believe that another 80 years from now antisemitism and racism will be eradicated, but I’m not optimistic. I’m learning that Never again! isn’t an insurance policy, but rather a necessary commitment to vigilance. Because history seems only to repeat itself.
I’m loathe to admit it, but my father was right about the lingering threat of anti-semitism in this country decades after the Holocaust.