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.