My parents and I just got back from the Holocaust Museum in DC. We didn’t get past the entryway where they both wanted to see the plaque they had mounted in honor of their families. Didn’t need to go in. They’d already seen the rest. Know the story.
Right before we got to the plaque, my dad got checked and rechecked by a security guard. He’s 91, a Holocaust survivor, fought with the Partisans; could’ve taken the guy with an arm tied behind his back. He gets checked wherever we go. Airports, federal buildings, Holocaust museums. After the war, he was a smuggler for a few years. Used to climb out the windows of trains and ride on the roof. Addicted to risk maybe. I suppose that’s why he still gets checked by security. Maybe once you’re on the list, you’re on the list.
After the plaque we moved to the building with offices where my parents got around security (probably means they donated a lot) on the way to meet with a group of the museum’s historians and executives.
That’s why we were there. My mom had a question. Nearly eight decades after a friend told her in her backyard that they couldn’t be friends anymore because my mom was Jewish, after hearing the crunch of breaking glass under her shoes the morning after Kristallnacht, after a Sophie’s Choice moment that sent her and her sister on a train with a fake passport, after years in an ever-threatened children’s home (they wouldn’t call it an orphanage even though they knew that’s what it was), after all the news and the lack of news (both of which meant someone in her family was dead); after years of donating money to museums and universities, scholars and schools; after decades of working with professors to develop courses on the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition and anything else that could provide a clue to the answer she sought; she still had a question.
“Why is it still happening? We’re supposed to be such smart people. So why can’t we stop antisemitism?” She’s an autodidact. Reads everything. Never forgets. Saw it all firsthand and has been studying it ever since. Maybe even a genius. But she underestimates herself and overestimates academics. So she rattled off examples from history they hadn’t thought about and asked them. “We’re doing a lot. But are we doing the right thing? What more could we be doing to stop this?”
They didn’t have much. You wouldn’t expect them to. It was an impossible question; an 87 year old museum donor who lost much of her family, along with her 91 year old husband who lost all of his, wanted a meeting. So you take the meeting.
And they ask why the hate isn’t gone yet. What are you going to say?
What are you going to say when a woman who’s been asking the same question for all of her life asks you if you have the answer. “Why would anyone want to kill my parents? They were such wonderful people.”
The answer’s not satisfying. Never will be. But this is about the question.
She’s seen the worst in humanity. Still studies the crimes of humans, the worst of history. Still cries when she asks that question about her parents. But she hasn’t given up on the idea that good has a shot in this world. That maybe, if we try one more thing, antisemitism can be cornered and killed.
Reminds me of a question I’ve had all of my life. How can you experience the worst of humanity but still have faith in the goodness of people? How the hell can you go on, start a new life, raise a family, still believe in anything?
I don’t know the answer. But my mom has somehow managed to pull it off. And that makes it all the more sad she lost her parents so soon. They would have been as proud of her as her kids are.