When fear takes over

I Remember!

My sweet grandmother on my Mom’s side, Hermine Borger, nee Weinberger, had two brothers, Solomon whom I hardly knew and Arnold, whom we all knew very well. Arnold was a big strapping fellow and I remember him best from his powerful smacking the cards onto the table during the traditional Sunday afternoon card games at my grandparents’ home on the Polish side of our town.

Uncle, or rather grand uncle Arnold owned a bakery in an area close to the Czech elementary school I attended. Every so often my mother picked me up from school and we visited the bakery. Freshly baked kaizer rolls were absolutely delicious when topped with butter and a slice of cooked ham from a butcher shop nearby.

The German occupation of our town on September 1, 1939, spelled the end to uncle Arnold’s bakery and our snacks there. A Volksdeutscher, a local German Nazi, took over the business. As simple as that.

When my father was forced to head the Jewish representation vis a vis the GESTAPO he selected uncle Arnold to be one of its members to work with him in what was called the Judenrat.

Perhaps as early as in 1940 it became clear that one of the most important priorities for the Jewish communities in Nazi occupied Poland was to save Jewish young children for whom the Nazis had no use and thus, given their vulnerability, were threatened with elimination.

Moshe Merin, a Jewish man from the city of Sosnowitz who by the GESTAPO was tapped to oversee all things Jewish in occupied Polish Silesia which included our territory, was well aware of the danger in which the Jewish children found themselves, turned to my father to come up with a plan to bring these little ones to safety.

In short, it was decided to organize an exodus of children from the threatened areas by bringing them to our town and then, guided by people who knew the way into Slovakia via a mountain pass, and onward south to the river Danube and the Black Sea and from there to a Mediterranean port, from where they would be shipped to Palestine and safety.

Given the complexity of the operation of transfering the children once arrived in our area to a mountain guide who would take them into Slovakia, my father delegated the organization and supervision of the operation to my uncle Arnold, member of the Judenrat who did this clandestine job well. While I do not know the numbers of kids involved in these secret transfers, I do know that dozens of children were saved in this manner.

Then, one day, the GESTAPO arrested uncle Arnold. Someone must have turned traitor. The operation suddenly ground to a halt. I need not go into details to describe the fear that took hold of us all. We knew where, in all probability, Arnold was held by the Nazi police. Today, a bronze plaque on one of our town buildings commemorates the horrors of the place:

“In this building, in the years 1939-1945 the GESTAPO had its office and torture chambers in which died hundreds of honorable nationals from both sides of the Olza river.”

The waiting game now began. When and what will the inevitable sequel to Arnold’s arrest be? The when was a realistic question whereas to the what we all knew the answer: wholesale punishment of the Jewish population. This could amount to a police dragnet of arrests, deportation or immediate total destruction. The days dragged on. Every time the door bell rang, we anticipated the worse. My father’s pride and joy was his gold Schaffhausen pocket watch, a veritable chronograph that kept the time within two or three seconds of the noon time signal broadcast by many European radio stations. When the door bell rang the tradition had become for my father to hand to my Mom the gold watch and to place a kiss on her forehead, followed by kisses given to Edith and me on our heads. Only after having done this, my father went down to open the house entrance to whoever the visitor was. A truly chilling tradition!

During those waiting days grand-aunt Else, wife of imprisoned Arnold, regularly came to visit. We heard her arguing with my father behind closed doors, asking him, imploring him for advice as to what to do in this calamitous time. Again and again she begged that he intervene with the GESTAPO and demand the release of her husband. Clearly my father could not do so. Jews had become outlaws and making oneself a nuisance with the Nazis, as they saw it, brought about very dangerous repercussions which made the situation only worse. And so unbearable waiting times and hushed conversations continued and we expected the worst.

Five weeks into this misery Else visited with my father once again but this time what in the past had been requests for help, turned into threats. We noticed upon her arrival that her physical appearance had significantly deteriorated. She had lost a lot of weight, her usually kind facial expression had turned severe and tears had turned into frowns. We heard her scream,

“Leo, if you do not make it clear to the GESTAPO that it is you who are the responsible person who delegated the children’s operation to Arnold, I will go down there and make this clear to them myself. It is you who are responsible for the operation and not Arnold. Only such an admission by you will save my husband. Consider this an ultimatum! And make it quick because I will not wait any longer!”

This time she did not wait for a response from my father. Slamming the doors behind her she stalked out.

The next few days were pure hell. My father seriously considered requesting the local GESTAPO chief, a certain SS Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain) Schweim, for the release of uncle Arnold. My Mom, of course, begged him not to do it. In retrospect I am certain she was right. Suddenly there was tension in our home between father and mother and both Edith and I were distraught. This sort of thing had never occurred before.

And then it happened: uncle Arnold was released. He had not been tortured.

Peace returned to our family but the prior happy relationship with aunt Else was never quite restored.

Why am I telling this story?

To convey to you how one’s psyche can be impacted by fear and how this fear can change one’s basic orientations, relationships and even world view. In our case, Else had been a loved and esteemed member of our family. Fear had distorted her friendship and love to the extent that she was now ready to jeopardize the very life of my father in an effort to save her husband. Love had turned into hatred. The good that had been accomplished by saving the lives of a large numbers of children thanks to the work of Else’s husband had receded into the past. To save her husband, the blame for the transgression of Nazi law had to be pinned on someone else although by doing so that person would receive a death sentence.

I cannot help but see a parallel between the story I related and on a much vaster scale the political situation in our land and more specifically the fear mongering that is done by president Trump to which our population is exposed almost daily.

Surely, you remember the case of the DACA young people who still are in limbo, with the protective legislation by former President Obama revoked. Surely you remember the attempt to instill fear in us by Trump’s reporting about the “caravan” of thousands of Latin Americans marching to our southern border. The already existing border patrols had to be reinforced by thousands of military and police personnel to protect us. The rape accusations against these poor people were again resurrected and our president, protector of women par excellence (wow!), continues alternately to plea with and threaten Congress into financing the billions necessary for the building of his promised wall that would put an end to the dangerous illegal immigrant incursions from the south. As it turned out, a “caravan” of about 200 people showed up at the wall, mostly women and children, fleeing from terrible situations in their own countries.

From a report received earlier today (5/4/2018) I learned that the Trump administration is now ending temporary protected status for tens of thousands of Hondurans. Since last year the US administration has scrapped similar protections from immigrants that were allowed to stay in the US since 1999, following a hurricane that ravaged their country. The Trump administration has scrapped similar protections for immigrants from other countries, including Nepal, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. These immigrants holding temporary legality in the US who would love to remain here have had children here, worked hard, started companies, made investments, etc. Now they don’t know what will happen. More limbo for people who in desperation sought and received asylum in this country which is now being revoked for no good reason, other than…!

Here is what I am worried about. Based on my lived experience in Nazi Germany I know that falsehoods and lies when heard long enough sink in and their toxicity is absorbed. The lies spread by the Nazis concerning the Jews took deep root and in some quarters remain alive to this day. Will we, a population consisting of immigrants and children of immigrants have the strength to resist infection by the avalanche of fearmongering and lies coming from our president and his surrounding, or will this spreading of fear negatively affect our country’s long held generally favorable attitude toward strangers, immigrants, refugees and empathy for others’ suffering even though these “others” do not belong to our tribe? It is my hope that we will overcome xenophobia because, yes, we can.

Our Jewish tradition cherishes a text attributed to 18th cent. rabbi Nachman of Breslov which reads, “kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar me’od, veha-ikar lo lefached klal,” or in translation, “The hole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” If you want to hear it beautifully sung, Google it, and listen to Ofra Haza sing it on YouTube. It may give you courage as it does me, every time I hear it and sing along.