Like most Jews my age, I don’t remember learning about the Holocaust. It’s one of those things I feel like I’ve always known: the sky is blue; the Florida Gators are the best team; and Nazi Germany rounded up my people, sent them to concentration camps, and murdered 6 million of them.
I can remember being a little kid and sitting on the swing in the playset my dad built, spinning in aimless circles, and wondering: Why? What was the point in killing so many people? And why us?
I felt like everybody else, but something about people like me must have been terrible. If not, why would something like the Holocaust happen?
It’s not something I could appreciate at that age, but I know now that I wasn’t the only kid struggling with those questions. For every group targeted for hate, there’s a child staring at the clouds wondering if they can find a way to scrub off the things that make her different.
I’m a third and fourth generation American. The last of my direct ancestors crossed the Atlantic and entered the United States before its borders closed to people like us in 1924. Just a few years later and they might have been trapped in one of the worst nightmares the 20th century had to offer.
When I was little, I liked the movie An American Tail. I knew the mice were Russian Jews (just like me!), and their journey from The Old Country to America was similar to the one that brought my family to these shores.
After watching the movie, I used to pretend that I was on a boat coming to America – just like my ancestors. I would imagine catching that first sight of the Statue of Liberty and I would feel this overwhelming sense of patriotism deep, deep in my chest.
It wasn’t until I got older that I started to think seriously about what it meant to get on a ship and never look back.
As far as I know, none of my immigrant great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents ever saw their home countries again. What was it like saying goodbye to family, friends, and country without having any idea what the future would hold? What was it like giving up everything just for the promise that life in America might be better?
In 1974, my cousin, Marvin, sat down with my great-grandfather, Isadore, and recorded some of his reflections on his life. The digital file I have is short, only 13 minutes long, and it’s tough to understand. The combination of the clicking of the tape recorder and Isadore’s heavy Yiddish accent makes some of the dialogue incomprehensible.
But here’s the gist: Isadore boarded a ship from Russia to the United States in 1913. His friend who was already living in the U.S. connected him with a good job working for a wholesale grocer. Together, they worked behind the scenes lifting hundred-pound bales of grocery supplies.
Like immigrants before and after him, he took on backbreaking, undesirable work. It was brutal, and as he said on the recording, “I never worked so hard in my life.”
He was young and not prepared for the day-to-day reality of the hard work that goes into achieving the American dream.
He thought about leaving.
One year after arriving in the U.S., Isadore went to purchase a ticket back to Russia. But it was 1914, and the ticket agent warned him that war was brewing in Europe. And this wasn’t any war; it was one that would eventually engulf the continent and lead to a revolution in his home country.
So, he stayed, and it probably saved his life.
Even if Isadore or any of my immigrant ancestors wanted to go back home, they couldn’t. Within a few short decades, the Europe they knew was gone – destroyed by war and the Holocaust and then locked away behind an iron curtain. There was nothing to return to there.
The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a Jew growing up in a post-Holocaust world, that aphorism always struck a chord with me. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been fascinated by history. It’s why I’m so committed to progressive values. It’s also the foundation of my belief in doing my part to make this country – and the world – a better place.
For those reasons, it’s been a tough few months.
As I’ve struggled to come to terms with the recent changes that have taken place in this country, I’ve found myself thinking about questions of justice, peace, and civil rights. And yes, I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about my family’s journey from Europe to America.
That’s why, it was with dismay that I watched what unfolded after the signing of the “Executive Order: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” on Friday, January 27.
If you’ve read all the way to this paragraph, you’ve probably figured out that I care about immigration. To be frank, I believe immigration and sheltering refugees are central to the identity of this nation. So, when I read the first news reports, I was upset. When I woke up the following morning, checked the news and started to grasp the full impact of the EO, I cried.
By the next evening, I couldn’t turn away from the television. I watched on with mounting dismay as reports came in on refugees, green card holders, and visa holders being detained at airports around the country.
Watching these events, reminded me of another time and another place. Substitute “Jewish” for “Muslim,” “boat” for “plane,” “Europe” for any of the seven countries named in the EO, and we could be back in the desperate days of the 1930s instead of 2017.
We’ve seen this before. This is how it starts. When we let the hate that resides in the darkest parts of our hearts into the chambers of power…this is how it starts.
At Synagogue and Sunday school we repeated the mantra “Never Again” as if it was one of the tenets of our faith. But in the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered: What I would have done?
Over my lifetime, there have been plenty of injustices. Plenty of times when I sat down when I should have stood up.
But now, I stand up and say: Not today.
Each of us gets to decide how we respond in the coming days, weeks, and months ahead. All I know is that I’m not willing to look back on my life decades from now and know that I didn’t do enough.
As much as I wanted to keep this blog separate from what’s happening in the world, I live in the nation’s capital. Politics are everywhere I look – it’s practically in the air we breathe here. And the Sunday after the Executive Order was signed, I felt the need to speak out and do something in a way that I’ve never felt before.
I knew I needed to hang up my hiking boots and put on my marching shoes.
The great thing about D.C. is that I wasn’t alone. I started my morning at a friend’s place for brunch, and while I was there, I recruited a friend to join me for the protest happening outside of the White House.
We didn’t have cool protest signs with us, but we were both equipped with the feeling that we needed to be present for this moment. We wanted to find a visible way to demonstrate that we were among the many who were not happy with what was happening.
En route to the protest on the 42 bus, we watched as more and more sign carrying people joined us on our journey. At one stop, one of our mutual friends boarded with a small contingent of people – proving that this city is really small. As we admired her sign (written on some cardboard they scrounged up), we mused that protesting was the new, cool friend activity in the District.
Outside the bus windows, we watched as streams of people converged on Farragut and made their way to the White House. Then, we turned the corner onto H Street NW, and we spotted a mass of people taking over Lafayette Square.
The bus let us off near the statue of General Tadeusz Kościuszko. The Kościuszko statue is one of four in Lafayette Square dedicated to foreign generals who helped us win the Revolutionary War.
The generals – Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette, Rochambeau, and von Steuben – overlook the White House. Their presence is a constant reminder of the assistance we’ve received from foreign nations and nationals – not only in our fight for independence but in the very creation of the fabric of our nation. And now, these statues overlooked us as we rallied against an Executive Order seeking to curtail immigration and refugees.
We walked past the statue and then we were in the thick of the protest. In the first moments that we were there, I felt awkward. I’m not a protestor. It seemed strange yelling and chanting protest slogans, even though the words in each chant resonated with me.
My friend was skilled at propelling us forward. She found small openings, and we squeezed through them moving deeper and deeper into the mass of people. As we were swallowed up by the crowd, we lost the other people we were with, but we found ourselves surrounded by friendly strangers.
Around us, people started to chant things like:
“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”
“You can build a wall; we’ll tear it down!”
And the always popular: “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
We started to get into the rhythm of it. Chanting the words along with everyone else as we pushed past the statue of Lafayette and onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
As we emerged onto the street, the crowd thrummed with an invisible energy. And then, with no warning, we were moving away from the White House and onto the street. I didn’t think we were supposed to be marching, so I looked to my friend for guidance. She also didn’t think we were supposed to be marching, but we came to protest, and the protest was moving, so we followed everyone else.
We didn’t know where we were going, but we guessed that we were heading down Pennsylvania toward the Old Post Office.
There were so many people in front of us that we couldn’t see the beginning of the crowd. Behind us, our fellow protestors were so numerous that we couldn’t see where it ended.
The chanting grew louder and louder, and I started to feel more comfortable lending my voice to the crowd.
It was emotional. I kept tearing up, and there was this underlying sense of urgency as we marched and yelled. Sure, with funny signs and creative chants like “hands too small to build a wall,” humor and even some laughter echoed through the street. But all the humor in the world couldn’t cut through the fear and disbelief that brought us to this moment.
We progressed up Pennsylvania until we reached the Old Post Office, now also known as the Trump International Hotel. Before us, the crowd swelled around the barriers blocking the building’s entrance.
We paused in front of the building, halted by the feeling that something momentous was about to happen. As one, the crowd began to shout, “Shame, shame, shame.” Then, fingers began to point at the building, and the yelling grew louder, “Shame, shame, shame,” until it reached a crescendo and then broke into a roar of jeering.
Some people rushed forward to get closer to the hotel, but we decided to keep going.
We continued on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it now was clear that we were going to go all the way to the Capitol.
As we moved east on Pennsylvania Ave., the Newseum came up on the left. The building’s most distinguishing feature is the First Amendment to the Constitution engraved in huge letters on its side. It reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I’ve passed this building many times. Like a lot of the monuments in DC, these words had become white noise. On this day, however, they took on a special resonance.
I wasn’t alone in realizing it. Throughout the crowd, people started pointing at the building and chanting: “Read the sign! Read the sign!” It was powerful. Looking around us, a giant group of people demonstrating on “America’s Main Street,” we were the First Amendment in action.
Up ahead, we could now see the Capitol Building. We kept going up the hill, pointing at the building and shouting, “Do your job! Do your job!”
Passing Capitol police officers, we walked up the hill and to the cement pavilion on the east side of the building. Once we got there, everyone started coming together, moving closer and closer to the steps leading into the building. Under the watchful and respectful gaze of the officers lining the steps, we chanted and yelled and demanded that Congress listen to us.
Then, over the deafening noise of the protest, we started to hear “shush” sounds. The shushing spread over the crowd. People quieted down, they threw peace signs into the air; and then, it was silent.
None of us knew what was happening. No one around us knew what was happening.
We paused and waited.
Then, out of nowhere, people started yelling: “See you next week! See you next week!”
And just like that, it was over. The crowd, which up until then had been pressing tighter and tighter together, started to disperse. The loud chanting ceased, and a weird kind of hush descended over everyone as they lowered their signs and started walking away.
I was exhausted in a way that’s hard to describe. Without the adrenaline of the protest rushing through me, it was like I’d deflated.
I’ve walked many miles. Not so long ago, I did 30+ in one day. The distance from the White House to the east side of the Capitol is about two miles. That’s the kind of distance I can do in my sleep. But after the protest, I was as exhausted as if I’d walked 15 miles.
Even if the march was over, the things that brought us together were not. The toxic political climate, the threat to equality and religious rights – those still loom over us even a few weeks later.
As we made our way to Union Station to catch the Metro home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the thought process that led to an Executive Order like this. I couldn’t stop feeling the echoes of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Emergency Quota Act, the Immigration Act of 1924…
Becoming a refugee isn’t something that you ask for, it’s something that happens to you. If history teaches us anything, it’s that in life there are no guarantees. The difference between you and a refugee is circumstance – nothing else.
Unlike some of my ancestors from Eastern Europe, my great-grandfather Isadore didn’t come to the United States as a refugee. But in the years after he left Russia, life there – especially for Jews – became unsustainable.
In the 1974 recording, one of the last questions my cousin asked his grandfather was if he had any desire to go back and see his homeland. And Isadore closed the recording with this statement: “I don’t want to see Russia. No.”
I can’t imagine feeling that way about my home. I can’t imagine talking about America with the kind of sadness that tinged my great-grandfather’s voice. I can’t imagine living in a world where the tides of time strip away everything that I love about this great nation.
That’s why I marched. It’s why I’m going to march again. It’s why I’m writing letters. It’s why I’m going to keep speaking up. I’m going to keep doing all of it because that’s what makes America great.