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.
My mom 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, so 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 42.
My family’s potential would not have been evident to the Nazi’s. 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.
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.
As a clinician, I understand it’s human nature to get caught up in the routines of daily life. But Americans have become so self-consumed and fixated on the trivial, we’ve lost our sense of civic duty. 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.
It is also human nature to feel more than one way about something (or someone). Unfortunately, people have a tendency to ignore some of their feelings.
Why? It’s easier – less messy, less complicated, 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 been taught how.
There are no simple solutions, but I recommend updating school curricula to include training in life skills, conflict resoution, problem-solving and emotional coping. I also recommend neighborhood improvement projects that bring together people of different backgrounds or roles in the community (e.g.; police officers and residents).
We may be Americans, but we’re human beings first. Without community engagement and mental health awareness, another holocaust is always possible.