100 Seconds – Ten Million Whispers 4/17/2021

This post will be rather different. I felt compelled to write this piece and share it with you, given what is happening in our country. Your thoughts gratefully appreciated.

I was born in 1946.

WWII was over. Soldiers weren’t the only ones killed. No, this was a total war on civilians, and ten million Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies in Europe suffered and were murdered without pity. The Germans and their allies were very efficient at the business of death.

Many in my family had emigrated from Russia, Poland, and Hungary to the U.S. between 1870-1910, fleeing conscription, pogroms, and poverty. I never met the Rappaports, Cohens, Schenkers, and Quints who stayed behind in Europe. My mother told me that one great aunt miraculously avoided being transported to the death camps by hiding at a Catholic hospital in Paris; then with the help of nuns, she secretly made her way with her children to the south of France.

Only when I was 43 did I travel outside of the U.S., the reason for which is detailed in my book published last year. Walking in Europe’s capitals, I could hear ten million whispers of a lost people, of a lost language called Yiddish, whispers of those who contributed much to the economic and cultural life of the countries they called home. The names of Jewish streets, squares, and ghettos still remain but in name only.

These mementos made me gasp and bow my head in silence:

A memorial inscription at the old Jewish quarter in Prague with a listing of names of those killed in the Shoah. One line had a family of Rappaports.

A plaque in Paris on the Rue St. Jacques, affixed to a school wall that Jewish children once attended. The last line in French read, “we will never forget them”.

A monument in a Viennese square I came across by accident. A bunker-like form, but coming closer, it was actually a stack of closed books, a library set in concrete, lifeless, doors with no handles or hinges. These hermetically sealed books were all that was left of the city’s 10,000 Jews, their education and culture came to naught.

As I’ve wandered, I came to these ideas about hate and violence, imperfect as they are, but crafted from my life’s experiences. The disease of intolerance incepts in fear, lies, and envy of the “other”. It is often stoked and endorsed by the powerful. I understand that humans (like other animals) are comfortable only with our own circle, pack, or den, but how does that become so virulent that we will kill our own kind, not for food or survival, but out of unreasoning animosity for another skin color, another religion, another gender identity, another culture, another nationality?

Oscar Hammerstein’s telling lyric in the musical, South Pacific, says it all. “You have to be carefully taught” to become intolerant and hate. We’re not born that way. We humans learn it. I have seen that haters don’t single out just one group, rather they are likely to hate trans people, black people, Jews, you name it. It is utterly frightening to see their faces, to realize that they are unreachable by any logic, and that they easily become violent. I don’t know how these souls can be brought back to sanity. I do know that the law of the larger society must come down hard on them when they act or plan to act on that hate, or we are all lost.

Hate is a suspension of reality into a twisted world of fantasies with no basis in fact. Some of these hate conspiracies are centuries old, resurrected again and again. Rational thought is toxic to hate. Hate will bar the mind of seeing anything clearly, but education is only a partial answer. There is truly an element of envy and insecurity in haters, as if being tolerant would threaten their position on the economic or social ladder. Dictators and autocrats understand how to manipulate these emotions effectively. Most Germans followed Hitler willingly to genocide and a dead generation of their young men. And millions of Republicans followed Trump no matter what and still follow his flavor of hate.

Hate’s companion is violence. A society which becomes conditioned to violence (as it occurs all the time) becomes ever more violent. It will never be normal to have frequent mass shootings in everyday public places. It will never be normal for a society to allow the public to easily procure high-powered weapons (or any gun for that matter). It will never be normal to have the police protect only its white citizens, while shooting people of color with impunity…but this is reality today in this land.

The whisper of George Floyd and Daunte Wright is the whisper of all victims. How many plaques would be needed to mark the site of victims of violence or police shootings in this country? How many schools where students were murdered? How many places of worship? How many businesses, malls, and grocery stores? Commemorations cannot change the future. We must stop writing our history in the names of its victims.

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