My grandmother was a German Jewish girl living in Shettin, Germany (now in Poland). She was about seven years old when Hitler was elected Fuhrer. I wonder, but will never know, did her parents tell her what this might mean for the family, for her? My great grandparents, Irma and Johan (who I am named for) believed the words of Mein Kampf; they believed the Brown Shirts rampaging down the streets. They believed that even their beloved, enlightened country would do to the Jews what they were threatening. Johan had fought for Germany in the Great War; he was a patriot, but he also had a cousin who had been Hitler’s commander, so the family believed what Hitler said. In 1933 they applied for visa’s to the US and to British Palestine, and they waited; they waited 5 years. While they waited my grandmother was sent to Catholic school. While they waited her brother, Walter, was called out in class by a NAZI official as a fine example of an Aryan figure (he had light hair and light colored eyes). If he had told the truth, if a classmate had let it slip that he was a Jew… we can only imagine what the embarrassed official would have done to my great-uncle to retaliate for this Jew’s Aryan looks. There was a time my grandmother had to live separately from her parents as they moved to Amsterdam to be closer to port when the visas might come. What did my 9, 10, 11-year old grandmother think? Did she know she was in danger? Did she feel abandoned by her parents? Did she skip and play and run around like a carefree child with schoolmates?
Finally the visas came, but before they could travel to America Johan had a heart attack; the journey would need to be delayed. Did they know what this might have cost them? In 1938, when my grandmother was just 13 years old and her brother 15, they set sail for America. They were permitted to bring about $40, and had paid for their furniture to be shipped to California (because they didn’t know how far inland they would travel). While my great-grandparents were wealthy enough to have servants in Germany, they knew life would be very different in America; they started the journey with 2nd class tickets. My grandmother and her nuclear family were saved; one aunt with her family also came to America and a few cousins moved to British Palestine, but her grandparents, her other aunts, uncles and cousins would all perish in the Shoah.
This week, as we watched white supremacists and NAZIs march in Charleville, I wondered what or if I should tell my children. They are so little - just 6 years old. They should grow up with pride in their country; they shouldn’t know these evil things. They shouldn’t know their President has supported evil people; I shouldn’t share with them the truth that will bring them nightmares. And I thought, driving home, what did my grandmother know as a 7-year old girl? What did her parents say? How did they teach her to be brave and fearless in the face of such tangible fear? And I think, too, how lucky, how privileged I am that I can even decide to tell or not tell my 6-year olds the truth of the world. How many parents - Black parents, undocumented parents, Muslim parents - how many of them are given the choice to protect their children with ignorance? How many parents in Syria, or Afghanistan or Sudan are given the choice to protect their children from hunger and fear and violence; from a life filled with death every day? I am lucky, I am privileged, I have the power (for now) to keep my children safe.
When my grandmother was a girl of 7, a man filled with hatred for her kind came to rule her country. I will never know what she knew when, but I will forever be grateful that her parents were brave and strong and prepared to risk everything to protect their children from that evil. I hope I can imbue my children with their strength and kindness and the legacy my grandmother left us: open arms, a great big smile and the knowledge we are going through it together.
Cantor Joanna Alexander