Now I Understand How Germany Created Hitler

After months of avoiding the astonishing, unimaginable train-wreck that is the Republican primary campaign, I finally turned on the TV to see The Donald take questions after his Super Tuesday wins. What I saw­­ — his charm, his undeniable charisma, and his unshakable conviction in everything he said— made me realize, this was how it had happened.

For all of us born after the Second World War who imagine it only through movies, history books, newsreels, or photos from Life Magazine, we have not experienced worldwide cataclysm firsthand. What it was really like to survive a bombing, evacuate one’s home, or hide in the woods with only the clothes on your back, trembling in fear for your very life. We did not know what it was like to witness a demagogue rise.

Now I understand.

My husband’s Aunt Susan lived through Kristallnacht. Now eighty-six years of age, Aunt Susan once visited local high schools to describe her experience as a Holocaust survivor doing outreach as a volunteer for the Westchester Holocaust Committee. On an evening when the W.H.C. hosted a dinner honoring the then junior U.S. Senator from the State of New York, Aunt Susan captivated the room with her account of The Night of Broken Glass. Coincidentally, November 9, 1938 was also Aunt Susan’s ninth birthday.

My father, Morris Heimann, had owned a store, like Woolworth’s, in our town of Beuthen near the Polish border. We were just sitting down for dinner. My mother had baked me a cake. At first, the noises from outside our window — shouting, shattering, things being smashed — seemed very far away. We couldn’t imagine anything happening to us. The sounds came closer, to our very street. Suddenly, there was a pounding on our door. The local police along with some soldiers demanded to speak to my father. What have I done? he said. They didn’t answer. He barely got to put on his overcoat when they pulled him, stumbling and protesting, out of our home. What’s happening? my mother cried. Don’t leave, Papa! I said. One of the soldiers pushed me away. Another saw our pet canary, Hansel, chirping in its cage. He stuck his hand in, grabbed Hansel, and threw him onto the ground. He stomped on the bird again and again with the heel of his boot. I couldn’t believe it. He was grinning, this soldier, as if he was happy to cause me such pain. When my father was taken away, I was so shocked. All I could do was stand there and cry and look at the tangled mess of bloody yellow feathers.

Days later, the police released my father. When he returned, he told us to be ready to pack. A friend of his at our mayor’s office had said that he would give us a sign. Months afterward, one day, our telephone rang. My father said it was time to go. We left that same afternoon, each with a single suitcase, and boarded a train for the coast. We managed to take the last transport ship out of Germany in 1939.

Sitting there in the audience that night, I remember feeling chilled listening to Aunt Susan explain how it had all began. People had voted Hitler into office, she said, swept up by his fervor and promises to bring pride back to the motherland. Photos had been taken of Aunt Susan by her town’s health department; it was said Jews could be distinguished by the profile of their ears. She recalled wearing the yellow armband, and the shame she felt being identified as an enemy of the state. Banished from the local playground, Jewish children were only allowed to play in Beuthen’s Jewish cemetery.

Morris Heimann had served Germany faithfully in World War I. He had even earned a Silver Cross. How did their world get turned upside-down? How were so many lives destroyed?

Senator Hilary Clinton stepped to the podium minutes later. She repeated the phrase “bloodied yellow feathers” in her own speech.

And what people like me could never comprehend was — how had Germany allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to gain power?

Watching Trump sweep ever closer toward the Republication nomination on the rising tide of America’s frustration, over how the everyday Joe or Jane can’t seem to get ahead, how jobs are “being taken away by immigrants”, or how fearful people are — understandably so — at the threat of terrorism, I feel I am witnessing a catastrophe in slow motion. No matter how offensive his comments, The Donald continues to enthrall. He is unapologetic! He will take a stance! He will defend and protect our country! he says. But at what cost?

I can’t help but feel a gnawing pain in my craw and a burning of my cheeks. I’m embarrassed for my fellow citizens who choose to follow this unrepentant candidate without questioning how unprincipled his values are. I can envision what might happen just because people are scared; their prejudices are already inflamed. How would we feel if laws were passed?––that would keep communities under surveillance, separate us with a fruitless wall, deny thousands from ever entering, or maybe, have people persecuted or even imprisoned for their religion or the color of their skin.

We are one great nation. Now, I fear we are divisible.

Watching Trump speak, I noticed the red, white and blue streamers and a sea of bobbing heads. I heard spontaneous clapping in response to something he said. Steadily, the applause grew and grew. There was a thumping of feet on the boards. I could almost feel the vibration from where I sat in my living room.

The blind allegiance. The emotional zeal. The championing of a leader preaching bigotry, xenophobia, and discrimination. This crowd would follow Trump…anywhere.

So this is how it happened, in Germany, so many years ago.

I tell my friends who live overseas that democracy is a messy business. Turning off the TV, I shuddered. I have but one vote. A queasy feeling of approaching horror — worse than any Stephen King nightmare — engulfed me completely, from head to toe.

I feel nauseous. I feel frightened.

I feel like a single, helpless lemming about to be swept right over a cliff.

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