The French journalist, critic, and novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, famously observed, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Antisemitism is on the march again. In Europe, it’s the same old story – right-wing nationalism is resurgent. But there are a few new elements in the mix, including the condition of rising Muslim populations and their catch-all grievance of Palestinian victimhood. They are abetted by the “intellectual” left, which has increasingly lost the ability to distinguish between vilifying Israeli policy (OK, if you want to split hairs, “Zionist” policy), and vilifying Jews.
In this country, though, something new seems to be happening. The rash of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (60 so far this year), and the recent vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia has us all on edge. There can be no doubt that Trump’s embrace of Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and the alt-right is a major contributing factor. It’s pretty clear Bannon doesn’t like Jews.
Is this what it felt like in 1933? Just a couple of news stories, but nothing to get panicky over? We don’t want to over-react, but we don’t want this to go unremarked either. What to do?
But you’re tired of hearing me rant about Trump, right? I get it it. Man, he really sucks the oxygen out of normal daily life and social discourse, doesn’t he? It’s exhausting.
I know – let’s go to the movies!
You know how everyone is always complaining about how there are no good roles for women, and how no movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace test any more? Well, here are three fairly recent movies I can recommend, each with a strong female character at its center.
And the best part is they’re all about surviving the Nazis! Let’s go watch a couple of these and then we can reflect on Alphonse Karr’s aphorism. D’accord?
Sarah’s Key (2011)
If you haven’t seen these, I won’t spoil them for you (except maybe a little). In each case a young Jewish girl or woman survives the war against all odds. But, to me, the unifying theme of the three is the death not just of the Jews of Europe, but the death of Jewishness itself. Though the women survive, at least for a time, their Jewishness does not.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Europe of today very closely resembles the Europe of Hitler’s dreams. It’s hard to understand the enormity of the crime that was committed: one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1941 was murdered by 1945. And in some swaths of The Pale, every single last Jew was killed.
Of course, the persecution and killing of the Jews is the thing that shocks and engages us, but it is the death of Jewishness itself that may be the larger crime, and therein lies the ultimate victory of the Germans. Yes, I said Germans. Despite all the retroactive claims of heroism and “resistance” that you hear about from today’s oh-so-liberal Teutons, in the 1930’s trying to separate the “good Germans” from the Nazis was a pointless exercise. It was a distinction without a difference – some people actively participated and others “only” watched.
It’s true that there may be a stray “Jew” here or there that has persevered in Europe, but not one Hitler would ever recognize. That stray doesn’t dress “like a Jew”, isn’t part of a synagogue’s congregation, doesn’t speak Yiddish (an entire language and literature extinguished!), doesn’t read the “Jewish press”. All those trappings of Jewish life and culture have disappeared. “The Jews” are not a political force, not a cultural force, or really any kind of force, except in the paranoid fantasies of the right, which have survived the decades completely intact, also against all odds.
In the east, in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere, young people are completely unaware of the history of the Jews or even that Jews ever lived there, much less comprised 50% of the population in many places. The small town or “shtetl” of Shalom Aleichem, once the center of Jewish life, is no more. And, more significantly, there is no trace it ever was there to begin with. There are no Jewish schools or libraries, no Jewish businesses, no buildings with Jewish iconography, no birth, death or marriage records.
And almost every Jewish cemetery is gone as well. Like today’s antisemites, the Nazis and their collaborators loved to harass the living Jews, and could not let the Jewish dead rest in peace, either. But unlike today’s antisemites, they didn’t stop at merely turning over the headstones and scrawling their messages of hate. They carted off the stones and used them to pave roads, latrines and basement floors, a practice finally halted in Ukraine in 2013. All traces of Jewish life, and death, were obliterated.
As I read the news of the day, I wonder when will it be time to sound the alarm, and when will it be too late? And, this time around, will the righteous be able to stop it?
Alphonse Karr also said, “Every man has three characters – that which he has, that which he thinks he has, and that which he exhibits.”