Friday, January 23, 2015

My Father, The Holocaust, Charlie Hebdo, and Unintended Consequences

I'm going to start by  telling you a bit about being the daughter of a refugee from the Holocaust. I've been triggered to do this by a couple of things. First there were these incidents in Paris concerning Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market. Then I was asked to prepare a monologue for an audition in which I was to portray a first generation German immigrant. I found a few weeks ago that I can do a German accent. When it popped out of my mouth, it was accompanied by insistent memories.

My father

My father came to this country as a refugee from the Holocaust in 1937.  He was a refugee from the early Holocaust and, fortunately, did not spend time in the camps. He was raised Lutheran, but at least some of his ancestors were Jewish, probably all of them in recent memory. 

He never knew which of his grandparents had been born Jewish, the grandparents who marked him as non-Aryan, and therefore a target of the Holocaust.  This was not discussed in his family.  His father self-identified as Lutheran.  His mother self-identified as Catholic.

When I was a child, we were not permitted to mention the Holocaust in front of my father. This prohibition was not explicitly spoken, but I learned intuitively that he found the topic upsetting.  The prohibition was so absolute that I gather my younger brother did not even know. When he was an exchange student in Germany, he saw Meryl Streep's movie about the Holocaust. That was when he realized, I think. My father visited my brother there and apparently my brother asked my father whether my father had had to wear a yellow star.

My father reported this question to me as an offense, an insensitivity, that his son would bring back those unpleasant memories.

Later we discovered that my father had a second cousin in Queens, NY named LL Barschall. My father was HH Barschall. I was in law school at the time at Columbia, also in NYC. I went to have dinner with my father and the man I learned to call “Cousin Leo.” My father was surprised to learn of Leo’s existence, because he hadn't known that his grandfather, Max Barschall, had a brother.

Leo couldn't have been more different from my father. He was short and chubby. My dad was tall and thin. Leo was also still Jewish. And practically the first thing out of Leo's mouth was a mention of the Holocaust. My dad didn't flinch. He continued with the conversation.  I remember thinking "Are we allowed to talk about this now? "

My father's family must have spent a lot of energy hiding their Jewish heritage, hoping it might spare them from the Holocaust. My father never even knew which of his ancestors was Jewish.  The family secretiveness didn’t help.

I have a residual fear of external manifestations of Jewishness, like yarmulkes. Somehow my father managed to communicate a lot of fear to me without even saying a word.  Even mentioning these subjects seems dangerous to me.  Sometimes I feel embarrassed at being afraid of innocent people merely because of their clothes.

So I still have a dread of speaking of this, still a fear of getting in trouble for talking.  

At some point, my father made a donation to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. He had a notebook from when he was a university student. At that time, there were not transcripts the way we think of them in the USA. Instead, students carried a notebook in which professors recorded grades at the end of each course. Non-Aryan students, during the early Holocaust, were given notebooks that had a sticky yellow stripe on the page. This stripe made it difficult, or even impossible, for professors to record grades, so that non-Aryan students would not have a proper transcript.

This notebook was an important artifact for the museum. And, for a while at least, was in the third display case of their chronological exhibit. It was also an interesting step for him to acknowledge his involvement with the early Holocaust in a public manner.

Visiting the Holocaust Museum

For many years, I avoided the Holocaust Museum. I suspected it would increase my fear level. After my father died, I got some communication from them in reference to his donation. Finally, I went there with my family.

My older son, who was about 10, found it too disturbing. He went through very fast and waited at the end with my husband. My younger son was fascinated and wanted to see every single thing. I walked through with him and read off every sign and watched every video. He was seven. I don't know what he remembers of it.

I remember --amongst many other things-- my father's notebook and the inscription at the exit of the name of my grandfather's secretary, Helena Jacobs, who was honored by the government of Israel for resisting the Holocaust.

My grandparents escaped to England in 1938 using visas that she forged. She helped many others to escape as well. Eventually she was caught and imprisoned.  But, according to my father, this being war time, Germany had a shortage of skilled administrators.  She had run my grandfather's law office, so she had administrative experience. She was, curiously, made prison administrator. From this position, she was able to continue resisting the Holocaust. Later, when she was asked why she risked her life this way, she said it was because my grandfather was such a wonderful man that she wanted to save him and others like him. This made my father wonder if they had had an affair.

My father was an only child. I have long had a fantasy that it would turn out that he had a younger half brother who was still alive. No such person has ever manifested, though.

The visit did deepen my fear. I keep seeing grainy images of women in little cloche hats being loaded into box cars, never to be seen again, and dying horrible deaths, and imagining that I'm one of them. I visualize myself sleeping in those crowded, filthy bunks-- naked, starving, freezing, filthy, diseased. Sometimes I fancy I will wake up and discover that my father's and grandparents' escape was a mistake and that I'm to be sent back to this camp, as if I had ever been there, which I haven't.

My father wasn’t Jewish.  I’m not Jewish.  Actually half of the people who died in the Holocaust weren’t Jewish.  I learned that at the Holocaust museum. They gave us a passport at the entry with information about a person who died.  The person who I was given information about was a Czech woman who was a member of the Eastern Orthodox church and refused to convert to Catholicism.  6 million Jews died, but also 6 million other people including gays, developmentally disabled people, Gypsies, Armenians, and Eastern orthodox.  Many people don’t focus on these other deaths when they think of the Holocaust.

Germany later

I did have my German citizenship restored recently.  Germany does that for people like me who lost their German citizenship as a result of the Holocaust.  

I went to Germany once, when I was 12. I saw my father's old apartment, from the outside. There were still bullet holes in the walls, but the building was standing,  and there were still stone statues on the balcony railing of the top floor,  which had been my father's apartment. I could tell it must have been a fancy one, the whole top floor, with such an elegant balcony.  My grandfather was a more successful patent attorney than I ever was. I think it was on Linden Street, in a neighborhood where all the streets were named for trees.

I also saw Schwanverde, the amazing mansion where many father's wealthier cousins lived (and where Hitler lived during WWII); a German senator named Stein who was a childhood friend of my father (and whose children my father may have saved by sending them CARE packages after the war); and Helena Jacobs, who was elderly and in a nursing home and whose significance I did not then understand.

I also remember an uncomfortable moment in a taxi when my father turned around and began speaking to us in German, without realizing it, and my mother had to remind him to speak English,  My father normally never spoke to us in German and did not teach us any.   He was upset that he had made this mistake.

That visit coincided with the first moonwalk.  I remember being in a medieval castle on the Rhine and watching the first moonwalk on TV.  We also took a bus through East Berlin and some historical churches.

But mostly I remember a spooky feeling, ghosts of the murdered and of the murderers, that something bad might still happen, that the murderers were still lurking, that they might still come and take me.

I'm going through all this to help you understand the fears that many of Jewish ancestry feel. I know other people in this position.


The nation of Israel prides itself on being a refuge for oppressed Jews, for people who feel the same fears I feel.

But to me it isn't an attractive refuge. I'm not Jewish. My father was raised Lutheran and my mother was an old line WASP. She could trace her ancestry to Elder Brewster on the Mayflower. My cousin, who studies our genealogy, tells me he has memorized something like 4k ancestors and everyone has been Christian on that side for three hundred years. My maternal grandfather and great grandfather were in those same secret societies at Yale that the Bushes have frequented – and were very anti-Semitic. My mother's ancestors were fairly prominent in this country.  One of them was a brigadier general at Valley Forge, for instance.

I'm not Jewish.

Here in the USA, growing up, I had several friends in school who were Jewish or atheist, who complained frequently that Christian celebrations in public school felt stigmatizing to them. 

One of my childhood friends, Annie Laurie Gaylor, runs the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which works assiduously on preserving separation of church and state and also on behalf of people whose beliefs they characterize as "free thought."  This designation, "freethinkers," apparently includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, deists, and some others who do not belong to large religious groups. Annie Laurie suffered harassment in public schools from Christian teachers as a result of her stridently vocalizing her atheist beliefs.  She really sold me on the concept of the secular state.

If I were non Jewish in Israel, my understanding is that I would be considered a Palestinian. I would presumably feel marginalized by a state espousing a faith I do not share, just as my Jewish and atheist friends felt marginalized in predominantly Christian Wisconsin.

I'm not a Zionist.

It's curious to me how my Jewish friends, some of whom are very Zionist, do not understand how their complaints about Christian observances in US public schools make me uncomfortable with a nation that is explicitly Jewish -- just as with nations which are explicitly Christian, Muslim, or atheist. I believe in "separation of church and state."  My beliefs are unintended consequences of theirs.

Many Zionists don't seem to be able to separate not being Zionist from being anti-Semitic.  I don't think I am anti-Semitic.  I've sometimes considered becoming a reform Jew.  I feel that my religious beliefs are probably pretty similar to those of some reform Jews -- but Zionism does not appeal to me.  Sometimes I think of becoming Baha'i'.  Currently, I am a Quaker.

My parents went to Israel once.  My father said that, if he lived there, he would join the Freedom from Religion Foundation (actually he said "Annie Laurie's organization").  He did not like the idea of living in a country where the government sponsored a religion.  As an adult, my father did not participate in any organized religion.  I believe he was probably agnostic, but I don't know.  That was another thing he never discussed.  He did not like any discussion of topics that could not be proven or disproven.  He was a physicist.  

That fear of political, religious, and philosophical discussion probably also stemmed from growing up in the early Holocaust, where such discussions might have brought trouble.

Sometimes I've met observant Jewish women, who seem to be trying to undo the Holocaust with their personal bodies, by having very large families and raising their kids in insular observant communities. Then they send their radicalized children to Israel, where presumably they make these controversial settlements on the West Bank. I don't favor this process.

Incidents in Paris

Now we get to what's been happening in France. There were two incidents. In one incident, conservative cartoonists and other staff at a satirical publication were murdered. In the other incident, Jewish people were murdered at a kosher market.

Massive protests ensued with millions of people on the street. I've been in protests before. It's hard to get people out to such things. I was impressed that they managed to get so many out. Paris has a great history of street protests, some of which have led to revolution. Perhaps it is easier to get French people out than it is Americans

Notably these protesters carried signs that said "Je suis Charlie."  This slogan took off. I saw Americans posting it to social media.

I felt some cynicism about these protests. I wondered if perhaps the press has the power to mobilize protests when the press itself is threatened, but chooses not to exercise that power for other issues.

I also saw rumors on line that the protesters were predominantly reactionary xenophobes rather than true civil libertarians.  This deepened my cynicism.

One of my friends, whose mother came here as a refugee from the Holocaust, complains "Why don't they have signs saying 'Je suis juif?'" I know what she's thinking. She's thinking it's never stopped. Maybe she's seeing those grainy images of women in those funny little hats and the thick heeled shoes and the wool coats – being forced into box cars -- just as I keep seeing them. Her mother actually was in one of those camps as a child.

The Wall Street Journal, which I subscribe to, ran articles about anti-Semitic incidents in France and then,  ominously, ran an article saying that French Jews are packing their bags to go to Israel. Israel invites such people to move there, claiming to be able to offer them safety.  In my mind, given the situation in the Middle East, this claim to safety seems somewhat dubious.

I remember, when the stock market crashed in 2008, that I had an irrational obsession with fleeing, persuaded that political dislocation was going to follow economic disaster, just as it had in Germany when my father was young.  Fear, flight, my father's pattern, that was what was overtaking me.

I know this fear -- this desperate, impossible desire for safety – this desire to flee to somewhere safe.

But I also fear this emigration to Israel: more people to displace Palestinians. Do terrorists think at all? Don't they see that if they attack Jews in the diaspora, they are making the situation in Israel worse, the situation that they deplore and hope to change? That Jews go to Israel if attacked elsewhere – people like those radicalized children raised in insular communities in the USA?

And the protestors, do they know how their signs are being interpreted?  Do they know that their signs are being interpreted as anti-Semitic by Jews in the USA?  Do they know that their signs are also making more people think of going to Israel?

I lived in France as an exchange student. I stayed in two families. One was a secular Catholic family. One was a secular Jewish family. The mother in that first family was horribly bigoted. Though French people pride themselves on being tolerant, not all French people are tolerant.  Indeed, some of the protestors have been identified as very bigoted.

The terrorist attacks and the protests both cause more people to flee to Israel.  This makes for more land grabs on the West Bank, more suffering for Palestinians.  These are unintended consequences.

Can we stop unintended consequences?

I had this thought of contacting a friend in Paris. She's an American. She was, or is, a journalist. I wanted to somehow brainstorm with her about unintended consequences, about impressions created.

I wasn't clear enough.  Somehow she took offense.

She said to tell my friends that the French were equally concerned with the Charlie Hebdo incident and the kosher market incident. She said that the slogan "Je suis Charlie" was a shorthand for both events and that she has no control over the impressions people get who think otherwise.  She told me that the Jewish people she knows in France are not planning to move to Israel.  They think that would be giving in to terrorists. 

She did not want to continue the discussion.

So I am blogging about it. 

In principle, my blog could reach millions of people all over the world.

In fact, I know that very few people read it.  I’m too prolix and I’m not connected.

Still, I am hoping we can stop these unintended consequences and help everyone feel more safe in Europe and elsewhere.

I keep going back to a statement by Yoda in Star Wars "Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hatred.  Hatred leads to suffering."  I find that statement very insightful.

(p.s. I'm baffled as to why some of this blog shows up in smaller typeface. I did not enter it that way.)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Holiday Cards

This blog is to give some examples of my computer calligraphy

New Year 2022

Christmas 2021

Summer Solstice 2021

Valentine's Day 2021

New Year 2021 (12/31/20)

March 2020

 Happy New Year 2020

Christmas 2019

Happy New Year 2018 12/31/17

Season's Greetings 12/5/17

Birthday Card 5/19/17

Recently, I've been getting into blurry graphics.  I just really like the way these mixed colors look on my screen, especially full screen.

New Years 2017

Again I did 2

Christmas 2016:

I did 2 & couldn't choose which I liked better

New Year's 2016

Thanksgiving 2015

I did several drafts of this card see draft cards Valentine's Day 2015

2015 Winter Solstice graphic

2015 New Year's card

The one below is a sort of game I'm playing recently, where I make a smeary image and try to find letters in the borders of the colored regions.

2014 "Season's Greetings" (Christmas) card

2014 "Happy New Year" card

2013 Christmas Card

Get well card 2014

Thanksgiving 2013

Valentine's day 2013

Season's Greetings 2012

Here are a couple of calligraphy examples that I did for a friend who is getting a "yolo" tattoo