Sunday, November 27, 2016

Neighbors not heroes: Why I think Holocaust rescuers are relevant now

I study World War II history. So there were some things I thought about, when the election results started coming in.

Maybe not the obvious things. Much as I hate everything he stands for that I know about, Trump is not Hitler by any stretch of the imagination. He doesn't have a program. He doesn't have an ideology, nor an obsessive hatred for a particular race—just an arrogant contempt for many other races, for anyone different from him, for anyone touched by misfortune, for women. It's evil. It's not the same evil. I feel like I have to make that disclaimer; Hitler gets bandied about so easily. I remember when Saddam Hussein was Hitler. (Twice, actually.) I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea.

Still, on election night I found myself thinking of the people I study. I study Holocaust rescuers, specifically. We know them as the heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews with the Nazi jackboots at the door. And that's what they were—in 1943 and 1944. They didn't start out that way. Not at all.

And it's that last fact that made me think of them.

Here is the single most important thing I have learned, in all my reading about these people: they had no intention of being heroes. They did not know something “important” was going to happen. They did not know, in 1940, in 1941, even in 1942, that they were saving people from death. If they had waited till they knew the stakes, it would have been too late. No, here is what they knew: their neighbors were being shunned, insulted, boycotted, their property vandalized. They were being banned from their jobs, threatened with expulsion from the country. Their neighbors were being proclaimed from the rooftops to be the public enemy, what's wrong with this country, the true victimizer, because of their race and its current reputation.

That is what they knew.

These people did not choose to be heroes. They chose to be neighbors. They chose humanity over ideology. They chose to look into their neighbor's eyes and see what was there, instead of what they'd been told to see. And what was there was fear. They extended to their neighbor what they had that he or she needed. A place to stay for a refugee. Some food, a job, a ration card. Some help with a visa application. A look in the eye, human to human, with respect. A little warmth in a world that, for some people, had turned deadly cold.

The war went on. A place to stay became a hiding place. Jackboots came to the door. We know the rest of the story. It's the quiet part that we ignore. The part where they loved their neighbors in small, humble ways because they were willing to see and respect their pain.

Let me say this again: if they had waited till they knew the stakes, it would have been too late. That simple human neighbor love was their motivation, and without it nothing would have been possible.

I don't think a repetition of the Holocaust is going to happen. Of course not. The trouble is, I have no idea what is going to happen. There are two scary things about Trump. One, as a narcissist who doesn't believe in much except himself, he's a loose cannon. (I think that phrase has lost some of its scariness since we stopped using cannon, but here's something I read: a British sailor was once commended for his bravery in securing a cannon that had become loose on the deck of a ship, then hanged for letting it get loose in the first place.) And two, he used racism to gain a following and it worked.

World War II is what took away our permission to be racist. The more I read of primary sources before and during that war, the more I believe that. It's just so glaring. As one French writer points out in his preface to his great-grandmother's war journal, you find even in the writings of the defenders of the Jews the assumption that there actually was a “Jewish problem.” Maybe I'm being simplistic, but for me, the photos of the death camps shocked the world awake. This is what comes of thinking this way. We've got no excuse anymore. And then we erased it. Of course we had never thought that way! The openness with which educated people even in enlightened America preached—and practiced—forced eugenics, is not in your high school history book.

We erased it and we repressed it. Now it's back. The way Europe has been going in the last decade, it's clear that this isn't happening only in the U.S. It's been long enough now. The pendulum swings back.

I don't know where it's going to swing to. What form that will take exactly. I honestly have no idea.

Here is what I do know: our neighbors are being insulted and attacked, their property vandalized. They're being proclaimed to be the public enemy, what's wrong with this country, and the true victimizers. And there is fear in their eyes.

I don't know what's going to happen. They didn't either. They didn't know heroes were needed. They knew that neighbors were. And really, more than likely—today more than ever in the time where everyone wants to be a hero, to prove their life matters, to make an impact (these people were not trying to “make an impact)—heroes are not needed.

But neighbors are.

I pray we can learn to be the kind of neighbors I read and write about. I think we can learn a great deal from them about how. So I'm going to write a blog series about them.

I know a lot of stories you probably haven't heard, and now seems like a good time to tell them. Every week during Advent, and every other week for awhile after that, I'll post one of their stories. I hope to keep it up for quite awhile. It's one small thing I can offer: to help us remember them, so we can learn.

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