As the son of two Holocaust survivors it may surprise you that on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’m making the following request: Forget the Holocaust. Instead, focus on the years before the Holocaust and apply the lessons to today’s America. As a teen, my dad Joe Pell knew he’d be the only member of his family to survive after he narrowly escaped capture and crawled on his hands and knees through mud and shit until he reached the edge of the Polish forest. He survived there for months, alone, often getting through the night by stealing some warmth while lying on top of outdoor bread ovens. Eventually, he got a gun. A gun meant you could join the partisans, an organized group of insurgents, protecting each other and launching attacks from their hideaways in the woods. When the most evil forces of history pushed, my dad pushed back.
During our last time going out to lunch before the pandemic, my dad and I were walking toward a restaurant, and he expressed his dismay that Americans weren’t taking the threat to our country and our democracy seriously enough. My dad wasn’t an emotional guy. He wasn’t a liberal snowflake. He was probably a Republican for most of his life. He was quite possibly the least hysterical person in America. So when he worried, I worried.
I suggested that while most Americans were concerned, they didn’t see the Trump era as being that ominous because they assumed the kinds of things that happened in his life could never happen here. My dad stopped walking, looked at me, and asked, You think vhen I vas a kid any of us thought it could happen there? It was at that moment that I decided to write, Please Scream Inside Your Heart, a book that is as much from my parents as for them. The book has the same quick takes and humor you find in NextDraft, but it also carries an important message: What you’re seeing and hearing in today’s America is actually happening. Democracy is under threat.
One of the areas we see this is in the banning of books at schools across the country. Just yesterday, a school board in Tennessee banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning, Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Board members claimed they banned the novel, which features hand-drawn illustrations of mice as Jews and cats as Nazis, because it contained swear words and a naked illustrations. Let’s pause here. The illustrations were of a naked mouse. I know, ridiculous, right? And Spiegelman’s interview on CNN (complete with tea sips and vape puffs) clarifies the absurdity: “I’ve moved past total bafflement to trying to be tolerant of people who may possibly not be Nazis? Maybe? Because having read the transcript of the school board meeting, the problem is sort of bigger and stupider than that.
Yes, this widespread trend of book banning is big and it’s comically stupid. But don’t mistake funny for harmless. The press conference in front of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping was hilarious. But the underlying efforts to overthrow an American election continue to this day. Don’t get me wrong. I laughed at that moment, too. But I was also reminded of something my dad said during the early days of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. “This guy’s speeches sound a lot like Hitler’s. Everyone laughed at him in the early days, too.”
Dave Pell is the author of Please Scream Inside Your Heart, Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.