By Elissa Jacobs
“The Nazis,” I managed to choke out between sobs.
“The Nazis?” my mom replied, fumbling to drop the backpack I had handed her so she could pull me close. “What about the Nazis?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head like I could erase the idea from my six-year-old mind.
“The Nazis are going to come and kill me and take the gold from my teeth,” I finally said, collapsing in tears on my mother’s shoulder.
My parents, both born in New York in the early 1940s, grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Neither one knew how to tell their daughter about what had happened, so they didn’t say anything. Instead, I’d learned about the Holocaust in school, from a classmate.
I didn’t understand that the Holocaust had happened more than 35 years earlier. It was the first time I was scared to be Jewish.
May 17, 2019
I wake up to the local news: last night, the Center for Jewish Life, where a rabbi and his family live, was the victim of a second arson in less than a week. A third fire was set at a Chabad in a neighboring community.
I get my daughter ready for kindergarten, packing her lunch and braiding her hair. I drop her at school and don’t tell her what happened. I lack the words and I don’t want to scare her.
Recent statistics from the Anti-Defamation League report that, in 2018, Massachusetts experienced 144 reported anti-Semitic events, the fourth highest amount in the country behind California, New York, and New Jersey. In my town, over the past few months, swastikas have appeared on the bike path and school walls. After the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings, someone chalked the words of the shooter at a playground. In response to many of these acts of intolerance, the town Human Rights Commission has organized solidarity rallies and vigils. But the reality is that the volunteers begrudgingly save leftover materials from every gathering because there will inevitably be another.
My daughter comes home from school talking breathlessly about the news: a bear has been spotted in our town, a real bear! Her eyes are alight with excitement and a little bit of fear. I exhale, relieved that kindergarten gossip is limited to wayward animals and Magic Treehouse books. I’m not ready for her to know fear beyond stray woodland creatures and the bees that nested under our porch last summer. I wonder if this is how my mother felt when I came home crying that day.
The neighborhood girls and I were playing in one of their garages, which was empty of cars but full of things to explore: snow tires to climb, stored boxes of delicate Christmas ornaments to examine like off-season treasure.
One of the girls, three years my senior, dropped some pennies on the ground. Or did she throw them? They made a melodic clink, clink on the concrete floor, and I scurried to pick them up. The girl laughed and I looked up, confused, and continued gathering pennies. I didn’t understand why she was laughing at me.
When I was young, being Jewish wasn’t a large part of my identity. If anything, I defined myself as not Christian. I had actually spent more time attending the large Catholic church with my best friend’s family than I did going to temple. But while most days I didn’t think about being Jewish, I still had a getaway plan ready in case the Nazis came for me. I imagined hearing them approaching, driving their large trucks down our dead-end street with no escape, yelling through bullhorns for all the Jews to come outside. I’d run to the neighbor’s house and we would tell the soldiers that I was one of their daughters, named Christina. The plan was foolproof.
On television, the men were screaming, their faces full of rage. Some looked like boys—young enough to be my first-year college students—but the fear they evoked was all grown-up. A parade of torches lit their path through Charlottesville, angry orange arrows ready to light fire to the hair and hearts of those who didn’t belong. Their mouths and eyes stretched wide as they chanted in unison, “Jews will not replace us!”
Us? Their “us” made me a “them.”
I gazed at my sleeping four-year-old on the video monitor, wedged sideways at the head of the crib that she could climb out of but still preferred to sleep in, saying it made her feel safe. She had one arm up over her head; the other arm loosely held the unused loofah back scrubber that she insisted on sleeping with that night. I cried, wishing my love could protect her innocence as much as the crib.
I was at the neighbor’s house again. Everyone was gathered around the small, boxy TV with stoic expressions, watching a movie about the Holocaust. In the scene, several men in tattered jumpsuits had attempted an escape from a concentration camp. The escape failed and the men were each forced to pick another man to be killed alongside them as punishment. The men walked among the prisoners, making selections with a hand to the shoulder. No one protested or even reacted. All the men were shot together with the rest of the camp looking on.
Nobody noticed me standing wide-eyed in the corner, a cold chill numbing the muscles in my stomach. I mumbled an excuse and slipped out the door, running all the way home and telling no one.
May 18, 2019
It’s been one day since I learned about the second arson and I’m still trying to figure out what to tell my daughter. My husband and I are torn—between protecting her childhood and the risk that she will learn about more than bears from her classmates. I don’t want to stay silent like my parents, but I also understand now why they made that choice.
Instead of telling my daughter what happened, I use words that she can understand, explaining that someone was mean to one of our neighbors. With the hope of empowering rather than scaring her, I ask if she wants to come with me to hand out Hate Has No Home Here signs, so that the people who were hurt will see them.
“Yes!” she replies, jumping up and down.
Later that morning, we meet up with other people near the vandalized home. We fan out in different directions, giving yard signs to every family that will take one. Most people say “yes.” Those who don’t are still kind, perhaps sensitive to the presence of a child.
Walking home, my thoughts turn to Dr. Martin Luther King’s guiding words and I ask my daughter what can make darkness go away. She thinks for a moment before answering, “Light!”
“Yes,” I say. “And what can make hate go away?” She isn’t sure and looks to me for an answer.
“Love,” I tell her.
She looks at all the signs lining the street and a smile unfolds across her face. “Mommy, look at all the love!”
Our community may not be immune to hate, but it’s also not immune to love. For now, perhaps, that’s all my daughter needs to understand.
Elissa Jacobs teaches college writing in the Boston area, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Their front porch features a fairy garden and a “Love Lives Here” sign.
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