When I was a little girl, I was terrified of the Ku Klux Klan. My mother is Jewish, and while my father is not, and nor were we raised Jewish or affiliated in any overt way, I knew that by Jewish law, and in the eyes of the KKK, I was Jewish too.
Back in the mid-seventies, our community in Silver Spring was not notably diverse, as it is today; we were among a few (also fractional) Jews; our best friends, the Miller family, were the only African Americans in the neighborhood. In my deep-rooted fears – and something that I imagined well and often – white-cloaked Klansmen stormed our house with blazing torches held aloft. They would kill my mother, my brother and me, and then burn down the house. I worried most about what would become of Oliver, my dog. I wondered if they would show him mercy since he was a dachshund, as emblematic of the master race, if not as intimidating, as a German Shepherd. My father traveled frequently for work, and I always figured the KKK guys would not be so stupid as to attack when he was home. Then these robed monsters would move to the Miller’s house, across the street and four houses down at the end of the cul-de-sac, where there they would kill them too. I quite literally imagined my friends Kim and Karen – their lifeless bodies hanging from nooses on a tree.
As I grew older, this fear of the KKK never vanished, but it did, thankfully, subside. By the time I reached middle school, several other partial Jews, and more Black kids, and Vietnamese and Korean and El Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants – refugees, in fact, from all over the world – had added character and color to our school and the outlying community. It started to seem like there were more of us than them. And that we could take them on.
At the same time, I couldn’t shake a lingering concern that anti-Semites and bigots lurked silently among us. I developed what some might have called an obsession with the Holocaust. I was not an avid reader but what I did read veered toward true crime macabre and concentration camp memoirs. In typical childlike self-absorption, I became convinced that I was Anne Frank, reincarnated, a suspicion borne out in 1980 when my family visited the Amsterdam house where the Frank family had hidden for years in the attic; I felt quite certain that not only had I been there before, but had spent many nights sequestered in those cramped quarters, grappling with boredom and scribbling in my diary.
Back at home, I often occupied the few minutes before I fell asleep considering options for if-and-when the Nazis came to power in America. I was thankful for my last name, derived from my Irish Catholic father’s side. But I knew that would not be enough to save me. I thought about who among our neighbors would take us in. By that time, we’d moved to a new house, just one block away from our old one; I decided there was enough room in my friend and next-door-neighbor Michelle Baubé’s attic – not to mention plenty of clothes (for dress-up games and make believe) and stacks of her father’s Playboys! But maybe the Baubés would have to take in the Neri family on the other side of their house, because Mrs. Neri was Jewish too; would there be room for all of us? I decided the Kirwans were likely to take in the Neris. But what about my friends Sydney Dorfman and Pam Epstein who lived in another neighborhood altogether? Syd’s mother Mary was Catholic but I figured Syd was a goner on account of her last name alone. Pam’s mother had been a Holocaust survivor herself; she might know what to do. But how would I see them? What if we were sent to different camps?
Or would I manage – as I thought might be possible – to somehow escape? I thought of the labyrinth of underground man-sized tunnels that my more courageous friend Sarah McKelvie and I sometimes explored. And the woods behind the YMCA that I knew better than the Viet Cong did the jungles of Vietnam. And the non-Jewish relatives on my dad’s side who lived like hippies in the California desert – maybe I could make it out to them? And if I escaped, would I possess the courage and conviction to fight for the resistance; or would I just lay low?
Point being – while everybody said Never Again, I was quietly planning for Again.
As the years passed, the failure of the KKK to materialize with blazing torches on my lawn, or of the Nazis to make a comeback, emboldened me, and I grew into a young woman fairly unencumbered by fear. But my early professional life was spent in the Balkans and former Yugoslavia, where people of different religions and ethnicities who had lived peaceably side-by-side for decades, suddenly turned on each other. When the first photos emerged of starved Bosnian men behind barbed wire in Serbian-run concentration camps, and stories surfaced of mass rapes and executions, I knew that the fears of my youth had never been unfounded. “It” could happen again – anytime, anywhere.
When I married, I took my then husband’s last name – which I would never use professionally or personally – solely based on one fear: what if, after the next Holocaust, I need to be reunited with the children, who might not remember me? I will need some document proving that they are mine.
As a kid and adolescent doing a personal deep dive in the Holocaust and the rise of fascism in Germany that preceded it, I was attuned to those “moments” that seemed like turning points. I remember thinking to myself that I, or at least my family, would have seen the signs before it was too late. We would have refused to “register”; we would not have acquiesced to wearing yellow arm bands; we would have been long gone before Kristallnacht; for absolute sure, we would not have boarded those trains. I told myself all of this because – no matter evidence to suggest that America was different and that what befell Germany and Europe would never happen here – in my heart of hearts, I knew that it could.
Here are some “moments’ in our collective and all-too-recent American history:
- December 2015: Then presidential candidate Donald J. Trump calls for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” He is applauded and heralded by conservatives across the land.
- November 2016: The Crusader, official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and self-branded “premier voice of the white resistance,” becomes one of the few newspapers to endorse Trump.
- November 8, 2016: Donald J. Trump – a notorious bigot who built a campaign upon fomenting fear, racism and xenophobia; bragged openly about assaulting women; and is known to have kept a bedside copy of Mein Kampf – is elected 45th President of the United States of America.
- January 2017: Newly-elected Trump makes one of his first acts in office Executive Order 13769, suspending the entry of anyone, including refugees and victims of war crimes, from seven “Muslim” countries. Hundreds of people – some American citizens or Green Card holders – are inexplicably and indefinitely detained. Hate crimes immediately rise.
- August 2017: After a white supremacist deliberately drives into a crowd of people peacefully protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – killing civil rights activist Heather Heyer and injuring more than 30 others – President Trump publicly defends the white nationalists, calling them “some very fine people.”
- April 2018: The Trump administration makes public its family separation policy (that in fact was quietly enacted a year prior) intended to deter illegal entry across the Mexican border. Under the policy, federal authorities separate children from their parents or guardians, with adults prosecuted and held in federal jails and children and infants as young as 4-months-old placed in unsanitary and unsafe detention centers. To date, at least seven children have died in immigration custody.
I could go on. But at the same time, I cannot. My fear and frustration are constantly close to combustion.
This blog was prompted by a bad dream. I recognize it’s tedious to endure other people’s accounts of their dreams so I’ll try to make it short:
I awake in my bed to find blood dripping from the ceiling, which for reasons I cannot explain, is made of those styrofoamy drop panels. The blood seeps through the tiles and lands on my bed, staining my white sheets. Drops of blood run in rivulets down my forehead as I move under the source to more closely examine. The ceiling, my sheets, are steeped in red. I decide it’s best to leave the house, and so I do; but outside, I am unsure where to go. And so I return. My father is there now; he agrees to remove one of the tiles to determine the source of the blood. When he does, poking the tile up and out with a long black umbrella he happens to have on hand, he peers into the crawlspace, and a torrent of thick blood washes down and across my face. Through my matted, bloody hair, I look to my father, who says, “Yes it’s as we expected; there’s somebody’s head up there. This is clearly the work of the Klan. They’re just sending you a warning.”
It was one of those dreams that was so realistic that upon waking, it took me several moments to realize it had only been a dream. With the room still dark, I felt the bed around me – no blood. The warm furry body of Brewster, our hound dog, snoring loudly next to me. Next to him, the straw-headed lump of my twelve-year-old son who still sometimes ends up in my bed. On the floor to my left, Scout, our “guard dog,” alert at his post. But still I could feel blood tracing its way down my cheek. I wiped it aside and checked my hand. The wetness was not red; it was not blood, just a tear.
I heaved a sigh of relief. I swung my feet to one side and planted them on the cold floor. I stood up, and told myself All is well with the world. It was just a bad dream.
But I also made a mental note; I have seen enough signs. It is time now. Never Again is and always was a fantasy. But for me, for my children, there will be no such thing as No Escape. I am shifting gears into survival mode. And that is never a pretty but always a necessary thing.
Donald J. Trump does not frighten me. He is a small, simpleminded stooge of a man. What does frighten me is the fact that – Russian interference or not – arguably half of America voted for him, implicitly embracing his (albeit inarticulate) platform of fear, anger and entitlement. When I force myself to watch, for however long I can stand it, pro-Trump rallies, what I see is a tidal wave, packed with the flotsam and jetsam of ignorance and hate, breaking over us, destroying everything in its path and all that we’ve accomplished and pushing this once great nation backward in time.