There was a time when I thought Americans were above this, that we were special. I thought what happened in WWII Germany could never happen here. “We’re not that naive,” I thought, “Not that dispassionate.”
As an American Jew, I grew up learning about the Holocaust: this is what happens when “good men do nothing.” I learned, if Jews wanted cultural acceptance, we’d have to stand up for it. If we wanted to survive in a hostile world, we’d have to create our own safe haven.
A common story among Jews: my maternal grandfather escaped Poland and moved in with extended family in NYC. At some point, he stopped receiving letters from his parents and siblings. He never saw them again. After the war, he tried desperately to find out what happened, but never could.
My grandfather was a very religious man. As a child, I had mixed feelings about his visits. On the one hand, my mom bought special “treats,” like bagels, lox and cream cheese, halvah and wafer cookies – you know. the kind that taste like cardboard on the outside but has that sugary pink cream in between? It was always the same items.
On the other hand, I was not allowed to watch TV or be driven anywhere Friday through Saturday. My mom had to leave one gas burner on at all times to cook, and lights were kept either on or off. Once my grandfather scolded me for using scissors.
This was how my mother was brought up. Even though she lived in Brighton Beach, she was not allowed to go swimming on a Saturday. She recalled walking past children on her way to shul enjoying the beach. But my mom was very proud of her Jewish heritage and even worked as a Hebrew school teacher early in her career.
As was common of his generation, my grandfather worked with his hands, making leather goods. My mom went on to become one of the first female attorneys of her generation. Nevertheless, she stayed home with my brother, sister and I until I was in school. For most of her career, my mom worked for the US Department of Interior, retiring at the age of 79.
She did not live to see her daughter join the Army, (which was probably for the best.) Like most moms, she was worried about me being in harms way. Our last discussion on the matter, we agreed-to-disagree. While my siblings and I held vigil at the hospital, I was going through the process of commissioning. I was 42-years-old.
Once I joined the Army, I learned many Soldiers did so for the same idealistic reasons as I: to make a difference and be part of something bigger than themselves. (Imagine my surprise when I heard those exact words on an Army commercial!) I also learned what it felt like to be taken for granted while, at the same time, regarding this as a luxury military men and women fought for. Its not unlike being a parent: a child has little awareness of a parent’s sacrifices, but we make these sacrifices so children have the opportunity to be children.
It’s human nature to get caught up in the day-to-day routine of life, but that sense of civic duty is essential for more than national security. It’s necessary for democracy and a cohesive society. America was not designed for a passive, reactionary citizenry. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it’s the responsibility of every American to be informed,” and, I would add, be involved.
All of my family’s history, hard work and potential would not have been evident to the Nazi’s. They did not give Jews the opportunity. They wanted an easy “solution” and a place to put their anger. So they had to treat us as subhuman.
Ive been a Clinical Social Worker for 26 years. In that time, I’ve learned people have good reasons for making bad decisions. Ive also learned people rarely feel one way about something (or someone). The problem is people have a tendency to ignore some of their feelings.
Why? It’s easier – less messy, less complicated and less anxiety-provoking. Responding individually to each situation (or person) takes effort. It requires insight and a variety of coping skills, which most people don’t have. This is the cost of a society that stigmatizes mental health: you can’t expect people to make good decisions if they haven’t learned how.
There is no simple solution for how to instill a sense of civic duty and emotional functioning, but rethinking school curriculum – emphasizing life skills and civic activism over complex math, science and literature – is a start. Another would be programs that bring together off-duty police officers and residents working together on projects to improve their communities.
We may be Americans, but we’re human beings first. So whether it be post WWII Germany or the United States today, you can expect people to respond the same way, until they learn to internalize the differences.