FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE CHILDREN

When I was around nine or ten, my father said he wanted to show me a film that was going to be disturbing but was important. Something terrible happened not too long before I was born, he said – when the world was at war and an evil man had millions of people rounded up because they were Jewish. Millions were killed, but some survived. The film he was going to show me was of American soldiers coming to liberate those who lived through one of the worst atrocities in human history.

It was George Stevens’ film, and when I looked it up recently and watched it again, I realized that the images had been seared into my mind decades ago. My father explained to me that the Nazis separated families, took young children away and killed them. It was one of the ways they broke people – there were so many others, he said. You can see in their faces the horror they’ve been through, can’t you? Yes, I told him, I can.

Then he said to me, “I wanted you to see this, to know what happened then. Because it must never happen again. Those words are also seared into my mind.

Around this same time, a young woman would come to our house sometimes to give my mother facials. She had a careful smile, and long black hair, which I envied because I wanted long hair more than anything. She also had numbers tattooed on her inner arm, just above the wrist.

I can’t remember now which came first – the viewing of the film or my parents telling me her story. The two things are entwined in my memory. But when I asked them about the blue numbers stained on her skin they told me that, when she was a young girl, her family was rounded up by German soldiers and sent to a concentration camp. Because she looked older than she was, she was allowed to live. And because she and her mother pretended to not know each other, they stayed together. Her father and brother were killed by the Nazis. Her mother survived.

I understood at that early age that the tactic of ripping families apart was one used by cruel tyrants hungry for power. It was used to disable people, immobilize them, conquer them. Behind everything I saw and learned was the trail of my father’s words: “This must never happen again.”

In high school, my history teacher recited Pastor Niemoller’s words: “First they came for the Socialists, and I was not a Socialist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I was not a Trade Unionist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, and I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This melded with what I had learned years earlier – that silence can enable evil.

I realize that bringing up Hitler and Nazis is very loaded. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the current administration is approaching the mold of the Third Reich. I am, however, saying that history is a vast landscape behind us, dotted with both victories and defeats, with dreams realized and nightmares set into motion. History doesn’t lose its power with time. It pulls on us whether we realize it or not. It asks us to learn from it, to stare unabashedly at the terrors that lie in its fields and heed the warning signs so those terrors don’t happen again.

If you consider how deep the wound goes when children are taken from parents, you can easily see how this is an effective tactic if one is aiming for tyranny. Consider the fact that women who have applied for asylum recently, and have had their children taken, are now so distraught they can’t adequately plead their cases. Consider the fact that even seasoned journalists have fought back tears on air when talking about what is going on at the Mexican border. This wound is wide; it affects all of us. It is not an isolated event. It’s happened before.

History echoes behind us. We will either listen to it or repeat it. We will either be strengthened by what has wounded us, or we will be defeated by a handful of people who know exactly what they’re doing. The tricky thing about history is, everyone chooses what they want to take from it.

5 Responses to FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE CHILDREN

  1. CIARAN says:

    I guess this is the friend back in California that Nancy said she felt she would be ‘betraying’ when President Reagan went to Bitburg. I wonder if they spoke about it? As to the larger point of this piece, I can’t help but compare President Reagan with the current administration, when he wrote in his diary that he was watching the news, and saw a Salvadorian woman who was slated for deportation, despite being married to an American and having a child: ‘I want it stopped. We shouldn’t be breaking up families’ Reagan recorded in his diary (Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, p. 297).

  2. E. Rice says:

    All true.
    My father drove a tank for Patton.
    I once overheard him speaking of his experience driving his tank through the gates of the camps, and the horrors embedded in his mind.
    I can imagine your parents, like mine, could not process that so many (approx 1/3) of our fellow Americans believe the Holocaust never happened.
    And that the Republican party has candidates who are openly Nazis, and promote the tragic, unfathomable idea as part of their campaigns.
    That’s the problem with “The tricky thing about history is, everyone chooses what they want to take from it.”
    Too many take nothing.

  3. David Marks says:

    As promised, Patti, I am returning having read your column, ready, in part, to comment, but almost too emotionally bereft to make clear my response. For one, I imagined the actual sound of Ronald Reagan’s voice speaking to his young daughter, and that alone, brought me close to tears, but what followed, was extremely prescient. My parents knew an elderly man who had that same tattoo, the one that was intended to mark Jews as animals, numerically characterized and enumerated in a world where some people were of no greater value than “swine.” I’ve come to a point in life where I believe that contrasts are fair, where those which parcel the disharmony of today’s fascist authoritarians to Hitler, are fair, insofar as they impact the millions of wounded human beings, yearning to find freedom and hope in a better land. I think it’s time we begin to see Trump for who and what he is, and for deriving the horror of what our parents taught us about Hitler, including the wonderful survivors who wore that badge of tattooed inhumanity on their aged skin, as honorable symbols of life’s experiences. Trump is ripping human families apart, without regard for human emotion, love, empathy, and left to his own acts of evil, he is a step away from what your dad warned you about, only now, you are seeing it, first hand. This is a powerfully and resounding emotional piece of writing, and Patti, rarely do my eyes swell with sadness and the tears of the past. In order for history to live on, in order for us to prevent a repeat of the past, we absolutely have to call out evil actors where they exist, and we must make the necessary comparisons, and you have done so beautifully, and it takes courage, because there will always be those who wish to lay claim to what exactly was the worst of all the world’s evils. Was it our own history of slavery, was it Hitler’s obscene attempt to wipe out a dehumanized race of people? The fact is, we are experiencing history in slow motion, which allows us to draw from the global hatred of what we were told about, and who we met along the way, bearing tattoos to prove they lived through unspeakable horror. This column is far too important and far too emotional to quantify, but you should know that it is truly outstanding, and I will not forget it,. Brava.

  4. Edward Jenny says:

    ever since childhood this has been one of the stronger historical events in my mind, I was conceived in Nuremberg during the trials American/German/Swiss father, Scots/English Mother, both very damaged by what they experienced throughout the entire war in England and then Germany during occupation, I was born in my fathers home town, German Yiddish settlement from the 1840’s this all permeated our entire childhood … and in recent times my fears are awakened … Bless you, Peace.

  5. Mick Bysshe says:

    Psalm 37:35,36–I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.

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