What Would I Have Done?
Today is January 27th. It is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. It has been 72 years. In the context of human history, that is just the blink of an eye. Like every kid in the US, I learned about the Holocaust in school, and my personal passion for history inspired me to endlessly pour over books about the two World Wars and the resulting atrocities. But in one particular Holocaust studies course in college, I began to confront the darkness and raw humanity of this era in a way that had a profound and permanent impact on my life. Upon taking her place in front of the first class, our professor gave a passionate, urgent sounding disclaimer of sorts; she noted that the course would involve materials that would be difficult to consume and that studying the Holocaust requires a solemn and reverent approach by both student and teacher.
During class, we discussed the politics and socio-economic conditions within Germany in the months and days before the Kristallnacht. When the discussion turned to the individual accounts of neighbors turning one another in to Nazi officers, our professor posed a question that would haunt me: “What would you have done?” Before anyone could answer she continued, almost to permit those listening to consider our answer and resist our instinct, or perhaps sense of moral responsibility, to immediately reply with affirmations of our own bravery and obvious repulsion at the idea of participating in the sinister deeds of Nazis. She asked us to imagine being interrupted during family dinner by a group of soldiers at our door. Imagine, if you can, being opposite a loaded gun and asked if you were harboring any Jews? If you find yourself certain that you would risk your own life for a neighbor, consider if it was not only you standing before the barrel but your children?
The danger in studying history in a clinical way is that we make false assumptions and create archetypes and categories that remove us from the truth. Humans like order, and the critical understanding of the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is too often taught and spoken about with an arms-length approach which allows the horrors to seem just a bit more orderly. Nazis are evil: full stop, right? But the darkest history of humanity is only as valuable to us as it is understood and utilized to inform our present actions. Nazis were humans, as were those Germans who turned in their neighbors. They occupied a world not so different from the one we know now; they had access to science, culture, and academia, they had families. The evil of what was perpetrated by the Nazis is easy to identify and categorize in our minds, their humanity is far more alarming.
At the end of class that evening, the professor closed with an important lesson. She told us that perhaps the most important lesson to learn from examining this dark history was not found in supposing what we might do in the most drastic of circumstances, but in learning to recognize and combat the preceding, smaller circumstances that led up to it. I recall her ending the lecture offering sincere hope that we may never find ourselves in similar times.
It was almost a decade ago since I took that course. It is painful and terrifying to have had to call upon my knowledge of that time in history during the past year. But through grief, anger, and fleeting but tempting moments of denial, it is critical for me to offer my understanding of the warnings, the smaller circumstances, in any way I can. Fascism and genocide has polluted our history in many forms in all corners of the world and while I am sure of parallels and lessons from history books I have not studied exist, this is the story I most understand.
We are witnessing nationalism on the rise in the West. Climate change and global conflicts are putting immense pressure on resources and creating waves of refugees. And here in the US, we have just experienced the first week of a Donald Trump presidency. For those who are engaged in politics, this week has been overwhelming in every sense. Resistance is visible and seems to be so far sustained but the hourly barrage of absurdity and actions mixed with lies is, as it is designed to be, disorienting. But through that haze, I think it is important today to recognize a looming danger that we are facing and prepare ourselves for what we are planning to do. The new administration has been consistent about one thing; the promises and sentiments, however extreme, made during the campaign are being translated into policy. There is no “pivot”, no watered down Trumpism, no vindication for those who shrugged at the most dangerous declarations Trump made to frenzied crowds. Remember all the soothsaying; He’s not *actually* going to build a wall, or deport 11 million people, or ban Muslims. Yes, he is. Trump is going to try to implement every crazy policy he proposed and most assuredly, even more drastic policies than we have had time and energy to imagine. But we need to imagine them. And we need to function as human alarm bells. We are not at a point in our country where soldiers are knocking on doors and it is our responsibility as Americans and as citizens of the world to make sure we do not get there.
The question of ‘what would I have done?’ is here, it is now. There is a sizable number of people in the country prepared to participate in rounding up undocumented immigrants and registering Muslims. I know that this group is far from the majority but let me be very clear: it does not need to be. Those willing to participate are outnumbered by those who are prepared to let it happen without objection, those who won’t volunteer information about their undocumented neighbors but won’t hesitate to expose them when asked. Things will happen quickly and a large number of well-meaning people who are repulsed at what they see will disengage altogether from exhaustion. I see it happening around me now; people of privilege who are not in danger of being harmed, at least in any immediate and obvious way from Trump’s policies, are returning to their lives after the election because they are “tired of politics” and are just hoping for the best. They may have tried to keep up with the news but every day is saturated with so many stories, not to mention the additional task of deciphering truth from blatant lies. They will get tired and they will give up and that is by design.
So who is left? Those who are being targeted will have no choice but to remain engaged and on alert. It cannot be up to only them to defend themselves and other communities. Those who are able to leverage their privilege and comparative security right now must hold the line. I include myself in that group as a white woman. We need to be listening and offering our support to people of color, Muslims, undocumented immigrants. And when we are in the streets we must step out in front of the most vulnerable among us. We must commit to staying as informed as possible, taking breaks to maintain our own health and wellbeing, but staying alert, paying attention, reading as much as we can every day. We must also be relentlessly engaging with our own representatives and local governments. If you are in a sanctuary city, reach out to your leadership to be clear on where they stand on protecting people and push them to develop and articulate tangible plans for resistance. And most importantly, we must connect with people in our communities and offer each other direct and personal support. If you have a local mosque, call or visit to offer your support or just to make them aware of their allies. If you know someone who is undocumented, let them know what you are prepared to do to help, connect them with resources.
If you are reading this and find yourself feeling it is a bit alarmist or that perhaps there will be some sense of order restored and this new administration will fall into a more moderate stride, I understand your hesitation and your skepticism. It is a common human response to allow optimism and comfort in norms and tradition to prevent us from confronting danger. This danger is, by design, more difficult to quantify for those who are not going to feel the first wave of impact. But we are experiencing the “small circumstances” of troubling policy and power that went unchecked in Germany not so long ago. We have the opportunity to heed the warnings offered to us by history to resist our own destruction. If we resist the urge to comfort ourselves with the false notion that fascism cannot happen here, we will be able to clearly recognize that every indication that it has already begun is staring us in the face. As we commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust today, instead of wondering what we might have done, let’s open our eyes and recognize that we are being confronted with the opportunity to answer that question right now.