75 years after Auschwitz, a Seattle Jew wonders: Are we traveling backward?

In America, anti-Semitism is on the rise and ignorance about the Holocaust remains dangerously widespread.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

The sun streaks across buildings behind the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

I’ve never been to Auschwitz. But I can close my eyes and picture those gates. I can hear the wind whistle past bare metal strips of train track, so many times have I seen them in photos, stories, in the echoes of experiences that reverberate inside my cells, across time, space, generations.

On a day like today, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when the world pauses for a blip to recall what happens when people know too little and hate too much, I picture frigid barracks, the gas chambers that put my ancestors to death, and I wonder: Are we traveling backward?

Conceptually, I’m a Jew in the wilderness, often surrounded these days by people who don’t understand what the experience of being Jewish is like. Born in an East Coast Canadian city, I spent most of my childhood enveloped by Jews. My public schools not only recognized that not every child celebrates Christmas, they closed on Jewish holidays. While the rest of the year I was nonobservant, in the summers I went to Jewish camp, where I put on Jewish plays and sang Jewish songs and observed Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating Jewish calamities — expulsion, exile, Holocaust. My community, different as we all were, shared a history; our streets were mirrors where we were seen and heard and known. More than once I traced my finger up the wrinkled forearm of a friend’s grandparent, touching the long-ago-tattooed concentration camp numbers. There was a link between those graying survivors and me, a thread connecting their near extinction to my existence.

But I’ve now spent more years in the United States, first in Florida, where my parents and I hid inside while the Ku Klux Klan marched down our street, their gowns sending a chill of fear up my spine as the palm trees swayed. Later in California, where I knew few Jews, I struggled to communicate my experience to many of the Americans I encountered.

Once, on a first date, my Star of David necklace slipped out of my sweater. “Do you know what this is?” I asked my date, who was staring at it with a strange look. Suddenly, without explanation, he had to go. I never heard from that pickup-truck-driving cowboy again. Even my husband, not Jewish but the biggest supporter of my efforts to keep myself and my children connected to our culture, saw my Jewishness before he saw me. “What attracted you to me in the beginning?” I once asked him. “Your exoticness,” he said.

Conceptually, I’m a Jew in the wilderness. Practically, I’m terrified of the wilderness. Now a Pacific Northwesterner, I stick out among the avid hikers and backcountry climbers, who all own multiple sets of base layers and day packs. Instead of the expected peace and pleasure, I find panic in nature, feeling lost and lonely, worried I’ll run out of food or get mired in a bog or meet a bear. I have an irrational fear of the wilderness — but I also think about it constantly. Specifically, I imagine what I would do should I need to take refuge in it. These thoughts — daydreams, intrusions while trying to fall asleep — started some time ago and have escalated. If I had to take my family and disappear, if we were forced to run, could we find a forest, a cave, to hunker down in? How would we get water, keep dry, camouflage ourselves? How many cans of food would it take to keep four people alive for, say, six years? I’ve actually done this math.

Why do I have these thoughts? Are they comfort in the face of potential disaster — natural or that of a human nature? Inherited trauma? Mental rehearsals, the genocide equivalent of the now ubiquitous and terrorizing school lockdown drills?

As a city girl, I couldn’t be further from a survivalist. However, a few years ago, when my mother-in-law, who raised my husband and his eight siblings on a middle-of-nowhere ranch, asked if I wanted to stockpile supplies on the family homestead, I found myself actually considering it. We could carve out a spot in the large shed, she offered, keep a store of food and equipment. For what, she didn’t say, but my DNA lit up like wildfire.

Stockpile. Exile. Auschwitz. How a word can send those of us grasping at our own histories like sand in a desert into an emotional vortex. Biblical Jews wandered the desert for 40 years. I turned 40 the year Trump took office. In the Trumpian wilderness I have been reminded that my children and many others — Jews, immigrants, people of color, trans youth, so many others — are not safe on our home ground. That our home, our country, is a mirror — a fun-house mirror. Anti-Jewish violence and hate rhetoric are on the rise.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2018, including the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Synagogues and Jewish community centers are under armed guard, worshippers and families constantly on edge. A recent ADL report measuring cyberhate found at least 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets were shared or re-shared on Twitter in a 12-month period. According to the New York Times, a forthcoming report shows anti-Semitic hate crimes poised to hit an 18-year high. The statistics aren’t abstract for those of us living them: Just the other week, the Seattle classmate of a friend’s daughter informed her they hated Jews.

I haven’t been to the museum that Auschwitz is now, or inside any of the markers often assumed to be spaces in the world I should be familiar with but am not — Israel, a prayer shawl. I have been to other places that mark our difficult history, Holocaust memorials and museums, the dark, cramped rooms where Anne Frank and her family were hidden from vast evil by neighbors with immense care.

Amid tallying imaginary cans of peas and pineapple in my head, I ask myself whether the ordinary places that mark the contours of our neighborhoods and communities could become forced work camps and detention centers, or future hiding spots, not only for Jews, but for any of the groups under threat from rising, emboldened hate.

My community taught me the history of hate when I was young. Yet my own children have made it all the way to public high school in Seattle learning nearly nothing in their curriculum about the Holocaust. This is a dangerous missed opportunity. Only 45% of Americans know that 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust, according to a recent survey of 11,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center. Yet U.S. adults who have visited a Holocaust museum or memorial were more likely to answer questions about the Holocaust correctly, and respondents who got more questions right tended to express warmer feelings about Jews. We have a powerful opportunity to educate right here in the Pacific Northwest, at the Holocaust Center for Humanity, which offers critical, hope-focused lessons in empathy and allyship for all. Every school and family in Washington state should visit.

“What was it like?” I asked my husband, who has been to Auschwitz. “The gates,” he said slowly. “The tracks. But the volume is what really gets you. The scale.”

On Saturday, Jan. 27, 1945 the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz to find 7,600 prisoners alive, along with hundreds of thousands of pounds of clothes, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 7,000 kg of human hair. The people who survived to tell the story are dying. It is up to the generations that come after to remember and learn from it.

Many of us fear that we are now living in a wilderness. But we are in this wilderness together. If we care to understand each other, we, too, can survive.

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