The Danger of Selective Amnesia

THE FACTS

Shootings of children and teachers in our schools, an institution that for us should be holier and safer than any religious sanctuary. The irresponsibility of inadequate firearm legislation and execution on the part of our government, our people, as also that of the NRA (National Rifle Association).

The recent and ongoing scandal of our government’s separation of children from their parents at the US southern border, as a warning to refugees from Latin America and a means to stem illegal immigration from the south. The immorality of the US president, his government and the Attorney General in legislating such breaking up of families.

The scandal of our people’s quick forgetfulness that has followed all these outrageous acts perpetrated by the incompetent and immoral elected and appointed members of our government.

THE MANTRA

Our government: “a government of the People, by the People and for the People.”

So, where is the People?



I REMEMBER!

Also you, the reader, may remember that the Nazi legislation, often designated as the Nürnberg Laws or Nürnberger Gesetze, was passed in September 1935 after Hitler’s ascendancy to the German chancellorship. This “Law for the protection of German Blood and German Honor” prohibited marriages and extra-marital intercourse between Jews and Germans. This law institutionalized many of the racial theories present in Nazi ideology. The laws excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship and rendered the Jews outlaws, people without protection or appeal to an official higher power.

The Nürnberg Laws resulted in arrests and the forced separation of Jewish spouses from their German Aryan counterparts. As far as I could ascertain, it was primarily Jewish husbands that were arrested and threatened with deportation to concentration camps.

The Aryan wives of these Jewish husbands did not take this lying down. They protested by means of letters sent to the German Ministry of the Interior and the various police organisms taking part in the arrests. As could be expected, this led nowhere. Were these protests received by the responsible persons, let alone read? In all probability not.

And so the women went on the offensive and staged an extended protest demonstration on the Rosenstrasse (Street of Roses) # 2-4 in Berlin. Why at this particular location? Because there, in a Jewish community building, 2,000 Jewish men, married to non-Jewish partners and the male children of these so-called mixed marriages, designated as Mischlinge (“mixed [race] persons”), were held.

The fear among the wives was that the Nazis would deport their loved ones to Auschwitz and similar killing centers. Only shortly before the womens’ protests, the German police had in fact rounded up 10,000 Jews in Berlin and sent them to Auschwitz! The women’s demonstrations taking place in bitter cold weather between February 27 and March 6, 1943, tell us something about the courage, the determination and the perseverance of these women.

The women involved were not aware that at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 – the conference that had decided on the Final Solution of the so-called Jewish Problem by extermination of the Jewish population – action with regard to the Jewish partners of mixed marriages was postponed until German victory in WW II.

German plans for the Jewish spouses and their “mixed birth” children were to send them into detention and work camps in Germany but not to extermination camps for fear of causing significant unrest among the German population during the war. These temporarily “exempted Jews,” roughly 2,000 in number, were now incarcerated in the Rosenstrasse building, waiting, uncertain of their fate. So also their non-Jewish spouses waited outside, freezing and with fear and trembling, but determined to stay on.

As the women continued their protest vigil outside the building, GESTAPO officials reviewed the identity documents of the internees inside. The first “mixed marriage” Jews were released on March 1. In the end the police deported only 25 of these 2,000 prisoners to concentration camps.

The released Jewish prisoners from the Rosenstrasse were watched, sent to work camps within Germany but otherwise, with a few exceptions, spared official murder.

Never before had a demonstration in favor of Jews taken place in Germany under the Hitler regime! The courage of these women who for the first time stood face-to-face with Nazi police in the hope that by doing so their action would bring about their Jewish husbands’ release is truly admirable. And while according to some reports the number of protesting women amounted to thousands – a well meant exaggeration – the courage of these 200 or so women is remarkable and teaches us a lesson.

The lesson taught is this: protesting for a day or two, even in large numbers, will not succeed bringing about change. Protests have to be prolonged in time and scope until they bring about serious societal disturbance. Protests limited to single localities such as local school walkouts for a day or two will not succeed. Organization is needed to show action in mass solidarity.

The multiple shootings in our schools brought about local protest marches and prayer meetings. With a few months of relief from these criminal acts, the tragedies seemed to have receded into the past. Not, of course, for the families affected but for us bystanders. The separation of children caused nationwide outcries of protest, even from the Republican side. Did it bring about result? The answer is YES. President Trump who initiated this shameful procedure backpedaled and called a halt to it.

As of this writing, alas, some 2,000 children still have not been reunited with their parents. Some of them probably never will, because of incompetence and lack of caring of the authorities involved. Imagine the resulting tragedies!

Let our united voices in protest be clearly heard until remedial action is taken.

Crossing a Red Line?

I am surprised that our media have either not caught (impossible!) this recent news or have been reluctant for one reason or another to report the rather terrifying words spoken by Mr. Trump at the VFW Annual Convention in Kansas City, July 25, 2018.

Here is what he said:

“Stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news…What you are seeing is not what’s happening.”

It seems to me unbelievable that a president of the US with cameras pointed at him, broadcasting his words to and beyond our own country would be making a statement such as this impugning our free press, one of the very pillars upon the freedom of our country rests.

It might just be worthwhile to take a second look at Trump’s statement and to interpret what the man really meant. As I understand his words, he advises his audience in front of him not to believe what they see or hear unless the news originates from and is being transmitted by him and/or his followers, i.e., the Fox News organization. News that does not have his imprimatur is fake news, not to be believed.

One of my intents for this blog is to compare situations and events from pre-Nazi and Nazi times in Europe as I remember them, to what we are living now in the US. In past blogs I brought to you a few such scary comparisons and here is yet another one that keeps me up at night.

One of the very first Nazi edicts that hit us Jews almost immediately after German occupation: all radios were to be handed over to the administration of the occupation forces, i.e., the GESTAPO. Adolf Hitler prevented us from knowing what was being broadcast in Germany and in the rest of the European countries, usurping to himself and himself alone the judgment of what is true and false and what should be and should not be known to us and, for that matter, the German people. Hitler alone knew the truth. Everyone else who doubted him and his pronouncements was a liar! It follows, of course, that everything being written and broadcast by the country’s non-Nazi media was fake news not to be believed. Before long the non-Nazi media in Germany were totally eliminated and their owners/sponsors sent to concentration camps where many of them perished.

So also Trump’s words are words of a would-be dictator who reserves for himself the ultimate right of knowing what is true or falsehood, what should be made known and what should not. The logical consequence of such a megalomaniac attitude, unless rigorously fought and successfully prevented by the country’s people, becomes rule by dictatorship – a police state.

This said, it seems to me that president Trump’s plan is to undo the legitimacy of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, the Freedom of Speech and of the Press, a key element that ensures that our system of checks and balances functions properly.

Much historical material could be quoted here to remind us of the crucially important role a free press plays in maintaining a democratic society. In discussing the shocking words of Trump with my wife Gail, she reminded me of the salient words of president Thomas Jefferson on the subject. He writes:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first objects should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” – Thomas Jefferson to Carrington. 1787. ME 6:57

Elsewhere, Jefferson wrote:

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” – Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette. 1823. ME 15:491

Seen against the background of this and other writings by the founders of our country, president Trump’s insulting words characterizing the press as producing “crap” and “fake news” should be censured in the most serious of words and actions.

This is a slanderous statement and attack by the president of a democratic country on the people who, often risking their very lives, report the truth honestly and to the best of their ability. That this truth reporting often contradicts words streaming from the White House these days is, of course, inevitable and that the president would wish to have it otherwise, is not to be doubted.

A free press, being the sine qua non for the existence of a free democratic society, must be defended, supported and praised. President Trump, by insulting our still free press has, in my opinion, crossed a red line and should be held responsible for his totally uncalled for, disloyal and downright treacherous words.

For my Mom

This is July 9, the birthday of my late Mom. She was born in 1899 in a small town by name of Trinec in a part of Austria-Hungary that became a town in Czechoslovakia in 1919. She was the daughter of the successful owner of a general store who at one time or another had migrated there from somewhere east in Galicia. Based on his way of reading from the Haggadah on Pesach or Passover, it was clear he had been a Galizianer or native of Galicia and thus a very frummer yid or observant/pious Polish Jew. For reasons unknown to me and never discussed in family circles, he had left Jewish orthodoxy and become assimilated. His German was impeccable and his handwriting full of aesthetic flourishes. Between him and my grandmother Hermine whom we called Omama, they produced seven children, my mother being one of them.

My mother’s first name was Anny, a Germanized version of the Hebrew Channah, meaning “favored or graced one.”

My Mom deserved her name. She happened to be the most loving person I ever encountered in my life. This little blog is dedicated to her. Quite apart from the loving care she bestowed on my sister and me, she was an extraordinarily decent, empathetic human person who at any time would have been ready to part with the shirt on her back to help a poor person. Because this kind of goodness seemed downright dangerous to Edith, my sister, and me, she and I watched her to prevent her from giving away too much, impoverishing her own family.

My uncle Emil was a sort of black sheep in the family. Nothing he touched succeeded. In American terms one could have called him a loser. Needless to say, both his wife and his two children, my cousins. were aware of this. Otto, the older one, many years later confessed to me that there were evenings when his mother had no food to place before them and both he and sister Lydia went to bed hungry. It was not unusual for uncle Emil to ask family members for financial help.

One afternoon with Mom, Edith and me being at home before my father had returned from his law office, uncle Emil arrived at our apartment and seeing us children, sternly sent us to our room. Alone with our Mom he began pressuring her to give him her two beautiful silver candelabra she used to usher in the Sabbath on Friday evening, so that he could sell them. Emil was quite an operator and my ever empathetic Mom was easily twisted around his fingers. My sister and I listened to the conversation and became worried his scheme would succeed. When my Mom, persuaded by him that a sister’s duty is to help her brother under such critical circumstances, left the kitchen to fetch some paper to wrap the candelabras before handing them over to him, my sister, ever the courageous and smart one, stopped her and insisted she wait for our father to come home to approve the gift. Reluctantly Mom agreed and uncle Emil left empty handed. Yes, watching my Mom on this and other similar occasions was the smart thing to do!

What I related above was a family affair and trying to help a brother in need can be understood, of course, even though this occasion was not the first or last one as concerns my uncle Emil….

The bell at the apartment door rang and I, probably eight years old, quickly ran to open it. What I saw as I opened the door defies description. Never, no never, had I seen anyone who looked as terrible as the person who stood before me.

It was a middle aged woman and that is about all I could determine with regard to her belonging to the genus human. Portions of her nose and ears were gone and where her mouth should have been there was a gaping hole – no lips. Her hand, stretched out toward me in a begging gesture, had fingers that suggested either their arrested growth to full length or some other reasons that had impeded their growth because what I saw were mere short stubs. Her clothing consisted of dirty rags.

I screamed, banged the door shut and ran to my mother. My mother listened holding me tightly. I must have been stuttering incohesive stuff in my fear of that horrible apparition when the door bell rang again.

This time my Mom walked over and opened the door. I was scared to get anywhere near that door but I watched. I heard Mom exchange a few words with that person and then, leaving the door open and getting her purse, returned to the door. Several coins changed hands and to my amazement and utter consternation, my good mother in this transfer of money touched the leprous woman’s hands. Saying a few words to her and smiling she said goodbye and calmly closed the door.

Leprosy or Hansen’s disease in those days, was considered communicable by touch. Surely, my Mom could not have known that this was not the case. Her goodness, her compassion for this horrible looking creature trumped any fear of being infected by leprosy herself.

A third example I will never forget: from my earliest age on to this day I have liked eating meat. And of meat there was always plenty in our household. It had become a tradition that after Mom had given our respective portion of meat to each one of us and placed her own portion on her plate, she always cut her own portion in half and handed me that extra piece of meat.

A guest at our table must have noticed this somewhat strange behavior and cautioned my mother about the potential damage relatively large portions of meat might do to her son’s health, that is to me. To reassure herself that no damage was done by her behavior she asked our pediatrician, a certain Dr. Neuman, what he thought about her son’s craving for meat. Dr. Neuman obliged with the following advice:

“Mrs. Ziffer, if your son craves meat, give him meat because his body obviously needs meat.”

This satisfied Mom.

I left Europe for America at age twenty in 1947. Twenty-two years later, I returned to my parents’ home for a first visit with a wife and four children. There were tears of happiness rolling down our cheeks. That evening we sat down at dinner. Mom had saved up all kind of goodies for that evening. Life under Communism had not been easy. Proudly she brought from the kitchen a lovely meal with my favorite meat dish of Wiener Schnitzel. Each one of us received a generous portion and then, lo and behold, Mom sat down, cut her schnitzel in two and reaching over to me, now a man forty-two years old, placed her half schnitzel on my plate. I was flabbergasted but, well… also pleased.

A wonder-ful yiddishe mame! What else is there to be said ? After 22 years of absence, an extra half-schnitzel for her beloved son.

And so, on this her birthday, I remember her and wistfully think how wonderful it would be to have her present among us. You, the readers of this epistle, probably feel the same about your Moms.

Her name Anny, or rather Channah – “favored one or graced one” – was well chosen. She fully lived up to the meaning of the name her parents gave her.

Happy birthday Mom! I love you. – Walti, your son.

The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Where have all the (genuine) Evangelicals gone…

One of my favorite songs during the Sixties was Pete Seeger’s “where have all the flowers gone, long time passing….?” I first heard it sung by Joan Baez and fell in love with it instantly. As an alumnus of Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, it made me proud that Pete Seeger sang it first at Oberlin College, one of my alma maters. As we all know this was a protest song against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Once again we live in a situation when our government engages in activities that are clearly immoral. The quite recent separation of children from their refugee parents at various points at our southern border is, to say it mildly, scandalous. What holier relationship is there than the relationship between parents and their children? This has been violated to the extent that several thousand children have by now been taken away from their parents and placed into fenced-in areas, detention camps, where they live like incarcerated criminals.

Yesterday, Trump, contradicting his most recent declarations about the importance of separating children of refugee parents, cynically echoed by Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General whose behavior has now FINALLY been censured by the United Methodist Church to which he belongs, reversed himself and by executive order revoked the separation policy. When will the separated children be reunited with their parents? The government ‘s answers are vague.

The separation of children from their refugee parents at the borders is just one of many Trump government activities that are despicable and disgusting that needs to be protested against.

My question is: where are the so-called Christian evangelicals whose mandate is to speak up against immorality in the name of Jesus wherever it occurs? Where are the Jewish leaders in our country who should be speaking up against the violations of biblical values such as lying and bearing false witness?

As it happens now, most of the religious leaders in this country have been remaining silent. What comes to my ears most often is, “Well, we will just have to wait and see what happens.” If we dare to remember what happened in Europe before and during the Nazi years it is that the Jewish voices were silenced by the fences of concentration camps and the murders that took place within those fenced-in areas. And the Christian voices? Sadly enough, most of those jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon and joined in the murderous chorus of so-called German Christianity.

But not all Christian voices remained silent! And it is here that the “Barmen Declaration” needs to be read and its founders and members remembered and praised.

Representatives of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions in Germany met at Barmen in May 1934 and proclaimed a common confession of faith. The occasion for this courageous proclamation was the rise of the Third Reich and German Christianity. The declaration was born in a tense time in the midst of a struggle to maintain morality and decency in Germany. Some have called Barmen a battle cry. While the Barmen Declaration is not a detailed statement of faith, it expresses the one thing that needs to be said at a crucial time to those who claim to be evangelical Christians, “The genuine Christian must listen to Jesus Christ and to Him alone.”

Because I, as a Jew, respect both the Jew Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus) and much of his teaching simply because it is to a great extent genuinely Jewish teaching once it is filtered through the net separating his genuine words from those the nascent Christian faith in a polemical spirit put into his mouth after his death, I feel very strongly that now is the time for the churches and synagogues to speak up and set the record straight. It is high time to state unequivocally that lying is wrong, racism and antisemitism to be condemned, misogyny to be made away with, name calling and insulting of others who disagree with one, to be ended. The list is too long and this is not the place to enumerate in detail the president’s shameful behavior and our present government’s despicable attitudes.

While this is a pluralistic country and many of us are not affiliated with any religion we should be able to agree that the ugly attitudes enumerated above, while to be condemned by both Christianity and Judaism, are also among the unacceptable and deplorable attitudes in the moral sphere of secular humanists and in the minds of ordinary decent people.

For lack of space, let me indicate here just one excerpt from Article 4 which makes it clear how far the genuine evangelical church of Germany went at Barmen: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and may, apart from its ministry, set up special leaders [Fuehrer] equipped with powers to rule.“ When one realizes that the German Christians not only remained silent during Hitler’s murderous rule but even expressed their adoration for him, the above cited text represents a slap to Hitler’s face whose title was the Fuehrer.

For the Barmen Declaration and other anti-Nazi literature circulated, for courageous sermons and truly evangelical leadership many members of the so-called Bekennende Kirche or German “Witnessing Church” paid with their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these heroes.

In recognition of such bravery, I can only say kol hakavod! “All due honor!”

So then, “Where have all our evangelicals gone, long time passing?” in this country and at this time?