“We Aren’t Very Different. It Could Happen Again.”
Europeans, young and old, share words of wisdom that the U.S.A. needs.
One August day back in 2015, I saw a new doctor. A man in his eighties who lived in Europe during World War II. He got to the subject of politics with me during my visit, particularly to the xenophobia that was running rampant across the U.S. during the presidential campaign then underway, when he recalled a childhood memory. A memory so devastating that, even though I hadn’t lived it myself, the moment of its telling instantly became one of my life’s indelible memories too.
“I was eleven-years-old,” he told me, “when I saw a train, filled with people. And the people were screaming. And they were on that train because they were the ‘wrong’ religion, and the leaders decided that they wanted them out of there.”
His words immediately conjured up a mental image so heartbreaking that I wanted to cry. I no longer saw the accomplished, self-possessed older man standing in front of me; I saw a small boy in the Italian countryside, confused and anxious, squinting from afar as cattle cars rolled past through heat-browned fields. The faceless shrieking. The arms waving wildly from tiny windows. The bloodcurdling understanding — shared by both the small boy and the unwilling passengers — that nobody could help them now.
Of course a child could never forget a scene like that: the heartless insanity of that era can end, and the boy can leave home. He can cross an ocean, adopt a new language, stride decades upon decades right into a whole new century — but collateral horror of that sort doesn’t know any borders of place, of time, of language. Some wars never entirely cease; unwanted memories auto-translate into any tongue; and trauma crosses oceans, leapfrogs decades, always to claim its place in the now.
He was sharing this memory to illustrate a point: he likened the anti-immigrant hostility and all of the wildly popular, massive-scale “deportation” plans swirling around the country in 2015 to “ethnic cleansing,” and he mused aloud bewildered at the fact that virulent exclusionism could be such a popular and widely supported political platform in the contemporary U.S.A.
A question worth reflecting on. Ever and ever more so.
As he concluded that tiny snippet of a childhood story about the people screaming from the packed train, his voice was mild but agitated, and I could hear the disbelief and the concern in it when he lamented, “How come people don’t remember?” — before he sadly observed that people haven’t changed.
People haven’t changed. Someone warned me of precisely that, not even a year earlier. In late-2014, I was visiting Berlin, blissfully unaware of the sharp turn my country’s politics would soon take.
One emotional evening in early-November of that year, I was at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe when a very sensitive, thoughtful, gentle young German man, with an artist’s way of looking at the world, found me wandering amongst the stelae in the moonlight and wanted to talk. His English was limited, but we seemed to be united in some affinity of understanding. We talked about our respective Jewish roots — far enough removed that we knew of no relatives who had suffered in the Holocaust, but close enough for both of us to understand that, under different circumstances, it could have been us. (Isn’t that true of any genocide? It could be any of us, anytime, anywhere, and only arbitrary accidents of birth place us beyond harm’s reach.)
Reflecting together on humanity’s capacity for cruelty, we fell into a shared, sparingly-worded sadness. My eyes were brimming with tears, which I didn’t bother to hide; I was not embarrassed to cry in front of him. This man was one of those strangers you know for only a matter of minutes, yet who feels like no stranger at all. And he observed, before we parted ways:
“People are like sheep. Human beings have not changed very much in seventy years. Some people think that it could never happen again, but people are still the same; their minds work the same way. We aren’t very different. It could happen again.”
And that’s the terrifying truth.
Just a few months later, back in the U.S., I would watch with horror as the presidential campaigns began in my own country of birth. Didn’t I just come back from Berlin? Wasn’t Berlin still battle-scarred, because the war had been so recent? Hadn’t I just spent countless hours in the solemnity of museums and libraries, studying the past right from the epicenter of that not-so-distant madness? And wasn’t this poisonous rhetoric, swirling right now in my own homeland, an eerie echo of the deadly ideas from that bygone time? More importantly, if the same kinds of ideas were resurfacing now, was the time even bygone at all?
And how had I never guessed that they might resurface — just months after that gentle stranger had said his prescient words to me?
I don’t know.
But I do know this: in 2015, I had the worst anxiety attacks of my life.
I’m not a historian. I won’t give you specific statistics, and I won’t say, “X is exactly like Y,” because circumstances always shift, and no two phenomena (or people, obviously) are entirely alike. But when a leader wins because he is the loudest and the angriest; when he appeals to a citizenry who feels wounded and impoverished after a long period of armed conflicts; when the way he manages to connect with them is by blaming economic inequality, and crime, and depravity on a minority group, and he simultaneously promises the majority group that he will build an extraordinary military and give them “their” country “back” by making the “outsiders” pay…
that nation is already skidding down a slippery moral slope.
I did not presume back in 2015 when I had that conversation with my doctor that any individuals among our large pool of presidential candidates had genocidal intentions. Even now, I do not.
But xenophobia doesn’t even have to reach the point of murderous intent in order for it to be seriously, dangerously misguided. When politicians make promises, or citizens cast votes, from a place of devil-may-care anger rather than a place of levelheadedness (not to mention anything about concern for human rights)… that’s terrifying. Because that’s precisely how societies make a big mess. And earn themselves decades’ worth of international enmity and scorn.
The generation that still remembers WWII — the ones who lived it from up close, in Europe — they are fading out. Sometimes I worry whether we in the industrialized West ever truly and fully learned our lessons. We like to say, “That can never happen again” because “we are better” — but the fact that we in the United States have ever reached the point where our leaders have decided that the “solution” is to deport people en masse? Tear their lives and families apart? In order to “take back” whatever they never stole from us in the first place?
If that’s how we’re operating on an institutional level, there are clearly a lot of dots we still haven’t found the wisdom to connect.
I live in Berlin nowadays. I’ve studied the Second World War very closely. Everyone clucks their tongues and wonders, how did any modern society ever allow such atrocities to happen? I will explain it like this: the pot doesn’t start at a boil. The heat — and the hurt (and the hell) — are turned up gradually.
It starts with rhetoric. It starts with “They’re rapists/whores.” It starts with “They’re thieves and they’re squirreling away what’s rightfully ours.” It starts with “Their children don’t belong in our schools” and “Their work ethic / hygiene / conduct is atrocious.” It starts with “They have no interest in living by our customs” and “They don’t belong here.” It starts with “We’ll expel them” and “We’ll have a military feared by all” and “We must regain our former glory” and “It is our birthright to be the world’s preeminent superpower.”
That’s where it starts.
And that’s precisely where it should stop.
That’s precisely where it should never arrive in the first place.
I think back to my doctor and the collateral trauma that he carried frozen in time — the eloquent, extremely well-educated, brilliant man, reduced to a childlike manner of expression when trying to recount what his eleven-year-old self saw some seventy-odd years before, as though the man were still trying to make sense of it. His simple sentences, his even more simplistic explanations. The resign in his voice.
I hope my own children aren’t one day, long after I’m gone, telling stories to a younger generation about fanatical deportations too. Tearful mass roundups of the “other.” The callous liquidation of staggering numbers of human beings.
I think back to the German stranger on the moonlit night in Berlin, too, who held space while I balanced precariously on the edge of tears. His sagely conviction that the very history were were mourning right then and there could repeat itself, someday, somewhere.
I just doubt either of us expected that the someday and the somewhere could be one of our homelands, and soon.
Maybe he was right. Maybe we haven’t evolved much in less than a century. It’s true; cognitive evolution on any sort of significant scale in such a short span of time might be impossible. But we can still do better — be better — than that.
An earlier version of this essay (2015) was originally shared on Laura’s old blog and one of her personal social media accounts.