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What They Read

There is an intense essay by the Polish poet Wladyslaw Szlengel called What I Read to the Dead. Szlengel wrote it as the Nazis were liquidating the ghetto in 1943. He captured the final months, weeks, days, and hours of Jewish life in Warsaw:

One day, I was supposed to read these poems to the persons who had believed in their survival; together with them I was to browse this little volume as a memoirs from the luckily survived nightmarish period, recollections from the bottom of the hell – now, the companions of my wandering are gone and within one hour these poems have become the ones that I read to the dead.

It is then the high time to sort my papers.

I am thinking about this essay now because I am doing a revision on my novel. (Unlike Szlengel's work, I end the story in late 1939, when the main character leaves Warsaw to escape the Nazis.) As part of this work, a wonderful woman in Poland is translating the last issues of a Polish Zionist newspaper so I can see for myself what the last days of pre-occupation Warsaw were like, and what the Jews of Warsaw were reading as the Nazis bore down on them.

But it is hard. It is hard to read these things knowing that 99% of the people who read these stories when they were fresh off the presses were dead within five years. It is hard to see their bravery, their optimism, their fears captured in stories noting that there are free clinics for the injured, in ads searching for lost family members, in recaps of the mayor's speech to boost the morale of the population. I am reading what a doomed and damned people read, and they could not even begin to fathom what was to come, but I know. I know and it is hard.

Here is what Mayor Starzynski said, quoted in the paper on Sept. 20, 1939, "The whole world has united in the fight against Germany. Warsaw will resist, survive and in the end – win."

(The city capitulated a week later.)

Here is a missing persons ad: "REJDER BEJNYCH is looking for his son DAWID (Dadek), who got separated on Thursday, 7th September about 4 a.m. at the outskirts of Warsaw. He’s staying at a dentist Szejnwald, Warsaw, Zlota Street 39"

Here is an article reporting how bad things are in Czechoslovakia: "UNBELIEVABLE TERROR IN CZECH REPUBLIC – according to the news from Belgrade over 10 000 people have been arrested in Prague over the last days, including many prominent politically active persons."

Here is an advisory: "SAFETY IN THE STREETS: during bombings several balconies were destroyed and now can easily fall down to the pavements. Same can happen with the glass from broken windows. For that reason pavements in dangerous places should be marked and barred."

Yes, this is some of what they read in the last published issue of Nasz Przegland - Our Review. It is painful to sort these papers.

Do read it.

This is our history.

This is what I read to the dead.

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The Pot and the Kettle

Speaking of displaced persons camps (see post below), today's New York Times has a fascinating (random) article on how badly Americans treated Jewish displaced persons after WWII. Many people I know have been very surprised. When I was researching for my book back in 2009, I learned a lot about how bad things were, so the article just makes me sad. Here's a highlight:

“We entered the synagogue, which was packed with the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen,” [Gen. George S.] Patton wrote. “Of course, I have seen them since the beginning and marveled that beings alleged to be made in the form of God can look the way they do or act the way they act.”

For every American Jew who has been so critical of anti-Semitism in Europe, remember that the US has historically not really loved Jews any more. (And you just need to read the completely fucked up comments on the article to see that this is not just something that is a historical problem.) This country is just much better at hiding our anti-Semitism, just as we are experts at whitewashing the true history of "freedom" and "democracy" in a land built on the backs of slave labor, the 3/5 Compromise, and votes only for white male landowners. We are as failed at living up to our ideals as any other country, but really, really great at being sanctimonious.

What we know from history is that Jews can find refuge in places for quite some time, but it always comes to an end. Husband always says we should be ready to flee because the US is really no different. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way, but people really love believing the lies - that the Constitution is for everyone - because it means we don't have to do the hard work to make it true. And yes, I realize that I still have it pretty good living here compared to some other places. But that doesn't mean I have to settle for what is. I want to see the US really be the shining beacon of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and it hurts me that so many of my fellow countrymen like to settle for half measures. The truth shall set you free.

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Mumps: A Fairy Tale

MumpsOnce upon a time, in a displaced person's camp in Austria, the only child of Holocaust survivors came down with the mumps. For parents whose entire families were lost - either to the Nazi death camps or to the Iron Curtain - this was beyond devastating. They would have done anything if only they could have prevented their little boy from contracting this terrible disease. Fortunately, the boy survived. The family moved to the United States, where the boy grew up, married, and had his own family. Everyone was very excited that the children could receive a vaccine that would prevent them from going through what they had experienced decades ago. Many, many years later, one of the daughters of the boy with mumps had her own baby. He, too, received a vaccine.

The very idea that a person would not take this precious opportunity to protect his or her child, and to protect the children of other, is horrifying to this family. What evil, wicked forces would brainwash parents to turn down a lifesaving option? They cannot understand.

This fairy tale does not have to have an unhappy ending. The spell of the anti-vaccination, anti-science advocates can be broken. It will take bravery and moral courage, but as this family knows, the alternative is even scarier.

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