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.
My family’s story is a common one 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 heard from them again. After the war, he researched vigorously to find out what had happened. He was never able to.
My grandfather was a very religious man. As a child, I had mixed feelings about his visits. On the one hand, my mom brought home “treats,” like bagels, lox and cream cheese, halvah and wafer cookies – you know, the kind that taste like cardboard on the outside but have that sugary pink cream in between?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 raised. Even though she lived in Brighton Beach, she was not allowed to go swimming on a Saturday. Years later, she would enviously recall passing children on the beach while on her way to schul. Nevertheless, she 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. She stayed home with my brother, sister and I until I started school. For most of her career, my mom worked for the US Department of Interior, retiring at the age of 79. She didn’t 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. We agreed-to-disagree. While my siblings and I held vigil at the hospital, I was going through the process of commissioning at the age of 44.
Once I joined the Army, I discovered 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 these exact words on an Army commercial!) I saw how military men and women are taken for granted. But I think this is exactly the type of luxury they’re fighting for.
My family’s potential would not have been evident to the Nazis. They never gave Jews the opportunity to demonstrate otherwise. They wanted an easy “solution” and a place to vent their anger. Demonizing and dehumanizing Jews provided a scapegoat for Germany’s economic woes.
We are Americans, but we’re human beings first, just as capable of heinous acts as the Nazis. Why? Because it’s easier, less complicated to externalize problems. As I frequently tell my patients, “there’s no such thing as a wrong or bad feeling.” However, you’re still responsible for how you manage and express those feelings. Unfortunately, this requires insight and a “toolbox” of coping skills most Americans don’t have. This is the cost of a society that stigmatizes mental health.
The families split apart and locked in cages at the Southern Border are also human beings, full of potential like my family – if our leaders choose to see it.