Posted inEditor's Pick

Cowards and Accomplices

Judith Hertog | Longreads | January 4, 2019 | 3,153 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Feature, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

Cowards and Accomplices

In light of her own family’s experience during the Holocaust, Judith Hertog considers her ethical responsibilities in today’s world.
Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Judith Hertog | Longreads | Month 2018 | 13 minutes (3,153 words)

The first thing I did when I learned the alphabet at age 6 was to spend a weekend writing out a stack of flyers that said, in large, uneven block letters: “Ret de weerelt!” a clumsily misspelled Dutch phrase that translates into English as something like “Sav the worlt!” I finally had a chance to express the urgency I felt when I discovered that, outside the idyllic life my parents had created for me in our small apartment in Amsterdam, the world was a dangerous and terrifying place where children starved to death in famines, innocents were killed in wars, factories poured chemicals into the water, and nuclear warheads stood ready to destroy everything in a flash. The world was in trouble and something needed to be done urgently.

So I copied the words “Sav the worlt” 50 times, folded my manifestos into paper airplanes and aimed them from our fourth-floor bathroom window down into the neighbors’ backyards at the center of our block. I assumed the neighbors were not aware of the state of the world, or else they would be busy trying to save it. I imagined my fliers would alert them to the seriousness of the situation and spark a worldwide activist movement under my leadership, even though I had not signed my name to the rallying cry or included a return address. Only when I saw the paper airplanes gliding into the neighbors’ yards, getting caught in tree branches or plunging into mud puddles, did I realize the futility of my act. I didn’t get any responses, and I never told anyone about it.

I recently thought back to this because I don’t know how I’d react now if I found one of my own paper planes in my yard.

I’m sitting here at the gym, waiting for my son’s tumbling class to end, and I just read a Facebook post by a friend in Gaza whose updates have become increasingly desperate amidst yet another Israeli bombing campaign on his city.

“Today I suffered a lot. I almost forgot what it means to be human. I was a THING,” he wrote. I have never met Mosab in person. A friend introduced me to him online because he is a poet who is trying to establish a library in Gaza, to take people’s minds off violence and desperation. I have sent him books and an occasional message to cheer on his project. But today I can’t even respond to his despair. Words seem inadequate. They can’t stop bombs from killing people. I should be back in Israel and doing something. But instead, I live in Vermont, where life is comfortable and my kids don’t have to face war. I’m aware the world is falling to pieces all around me. But for now, I just want to shield my children and keep them away from pain and evil. And I’m afraid I’ve become just as complacent as my old neighbors.

Nobody told me that this is what it means to be a parent: to have your soul placed inside another’s body. One mishap, and it can all be gone. My son is practicing his backflips. My heart stops each time I see his slender 14-year old body balanced in the air. He wants to become a circus clown, and I want him to live a life of razzle dazzle and applause. So I take him to tumbling class, even though I can almost see the world end just before he makes that last-second spin to land on his feet.

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