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Watching the U.S. and the Holocaust, or, Thank You, Ken Burns


            Watching the Ken Burns documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, the week before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was hard. The three night, six-hour documentary was advertised as being about America’s reaction to the treatment of Jews in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust, and the ways our own prejudices and the resulting immigration restrictions we set up at the time, kept the United States from being a haven for those escaping Hitler. I felt myself shaking with rage and pain and frustration, and I started to yell at the TV (similar to the way I felt when Trump took that first trip down the escalator onto the world stage). But however difficult it was for me to sit with the pain and horror of the documentary, it was even more validating. The timeline of the film, and the clarity it brought to the questions of when people in the United States knew what was happening op the Jews in Germany, and how they chose to respond to that information, was edifying; some failed to act because of their ingrained anti-Semitism, but others were afraid that if they took action to help the Jews of Europe it would set off even more (!!!!!) antisemitism around the world, and especially at home. It’s painful, but important, to remember how prevalent anti-Semitism was at the time.

            Antisemitism has come racing back in the last decade, but it’s still not seen as much of a problem by the wider world, maybe because Jews are perceived as powerful and white and part of the majority, rather than as a very small minority with an outsized place in history. Jews have been blamed for things like the black plague, failed governments, and poverty, whenever a convenient scapegoat has been needed. Maybe the Jews are easy to blame because we are a small enough group that people think we can be easily removed, like a tumor, but even after expelling the Jews, converting the Jews, or killing the Jews, it has always become clear, again and again, that the Jews weren’t the problem in the first place.

            I felt strongly that I needed to watch this documentary as it aired, rather than recording it and watching it later, because I wanted to feel like I was watching it with other people. I needed that feeling of support. So when the second night of the documentary was postponed in favor of a recap of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, for anyone who may have missed more than a week’s coverage of every detail leading up to and through the funeral on multiple channels, I felt minimized and pushed aside. I definitely took it personally.

“Me too.”

            There are around 7.6 million Jews in the United States today (according to Google), less than there were in Europe before World War Two, and we are only about 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, and yet, when the White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville they shouted “Jews will not replace us,” as if we are a threat to their place in the world.

            So when PBS aired the second episode, a day later than expected, I sat down in front of the television with my mom and crossed my fingers, hoping a crowd would be watching with us and that something would come of it.

“We’re watching with you, Mommy.”

            There were times when the documentary seemed to equivocate, trying very hard to soften its criticism of America, and especially of president Roosevelt. And there wasn’t much reference to the way the British actively kept Jewish refugees out of Palestine, leading up to and during the Holocaust, despite knowing full well that they were sending boats full of refugees back to Germany to die. But I appreciated the way the filmmakers bookended the documentary with the Anne Frank story, which is so familiar to the American audience, and then delved deeper into her real life than we usually see in discussions of her edited diary. Her former classmate, who went through very similar circumstances as Anne but survived the Holocaust, talked about the famous line in the diary where Anne says that she still believes people are essentially good, but she pointed out that it was written before the Franks were captured by the Gestapo, and before Anne was taken to Auschwitz, and before she and her mother and her sister died there. The optimism of that line has captured American hearts for generations but it has always bothered me, because many people are NOT essentially good, and Anne Frank’s life and death are proof of that. But the sugar coating of her story is very American, where we don’t just need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, but a cup, or five.

“I love sweet things!”

            The thing the documentary did best was to address the tendency of majorities to blame their problems on powerless minorities, and it made a clear connection between how the United States dealt with African Americans and Native Americans, and how the Nazis treated the Jews. Hitler is so often portrayed as an outlier in his hatred for Jews, and the disabled, and homosexuals, and the Romany, and on and on and on, but he was following models he’d seen in other countries, including ours, and the fact that most countries in the world refused to take in refugees from Hitler, allowing them no safe place to escape to, was a secondary cause of so many deaths.

            In the film, Freda Kirchway, who wrote for the Nation magazine in 1943, was quoted as saying, “We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that we lifted one cautious hand encased in a tight-fitting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits, and a thick layer of prejudice.”

Even after Americans knew what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust, and saw the concentration camps and their survivors, only 5% of Americans were willing to let in more Jews.

            I don’t know why this documentary aired in September, instead of around Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring), but a week later, a far right leader, with direct connections to Mussolini’s fascist party, won the election in Italy, so it turned out to be very timely after all.

            There are people who, endlessly, deny that the Holocaust happened, despite all of the evidence. Right now, we’re watching the Ukrainians fight a war and at the same time have to document the atrocities done to them in granular detail, because they know they will need this evidence to prove what really happened, and even then, the people who don’t want to know will continue to deny it; believing what their minds can tolerate instead of what is demonstrably true.

            This phenomenon of disbelief haunts us. Most Jews had the same trouble believing that such a thing could happen, because no one wants to believe things that make them feel uncomfortable, or frightened, or guilty, or any of the other emotions we hate to sit with. Humans are great at forgetting or minimizing or compartmentalizing the knowledge we can’t deal with.

            People can’t take in a number like six million people killed. And when they can, they often choose to believe that the Jews were to blame for their own killings; that they were complicit, or weak, or evil, and that’s why they were targeted and killed in such large numbers. There were something like nine million Jews in Europe before World War Two, and six million of them were killed. Most of the rest left Europe, to escape Hitler, or to escape their neighbors who didn’t want them around even after the war.

            It’s a painful thing to look at all of that hatred and horror, but it’s necessary, and I’m grateful to Ken Burns and his colleagues for making an attempt to bring this history back to the forefront, and to remind America of the dangers we face when we refuse to believe the evidence in front of us. And in the aftermath of watching the documentary, I hoped to hear that everyone in the world, or at least in America, had been watching with me, but I only saw a few responses, and those mostly from within the Jewish community. I hope that when the documentary airs again, and again, more people will choose to see it. But even with the lack of public response, what I still feel most deeply is gratitude, to Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein and the rest of their team, and to all of the people who participated in the documentary, and to the people who chose to air it.

Thank you for being willing to see what really happened. Thank you for making it feel real instead of like it’s a bad dream or an exaggeration or so long in the past as to be irrelevant. Thank you for seeing the parallels in the world today. Thank you for saying that these horrifying things have to be looked at and acknowledged, over and over again, to combat the natural human desire to forget.

To Stream the U.S. and the Holocaust from PBS –

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?


            I don’t want to write about antisemitism. I don’t even want to think about it. I have been lucky to live in the United States, and in New York, and especially on Long Island, because for most of my life anti-Semitism was a vague noise in the background, or a lesson from history, instead of an everyday reality for me. Even in High School, when I knew that my Jewish school was receiving bomb threats, I still didn’t take it in as a real danger. I was comfortable being an American Jew. It seemed normal, just like being a Catholic or a Methodist, or nothing. If anything, I experienced more conflicts within the Jewish community, especially between liberal and Orthodox Jews, than without. I knew I was part of a religious minority, but it didn’t seem to matter. Yet.

“Uh oh. That sounds like foreshadowing.”

            I’d heard about the blood libels in previous centuries, when Jewish people were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood to make matzah. Setting aside the obviously unbelievable claim that Jews were killing babies for ANY reason, it’s important to know why this accusation would actually make religious Jews laugh. Jews who keep kosher salt their meat (this is where the name Kosher Salt comes from) in order to remove as much blood as possible before cooking, because blood isn’t kosher. And matzah, which is eaten at Passover, is made under very strict conditions, using only flour and water, under rigid time limits, so that the idea that anyone would add anything to the matzah, let alone human blood, is unthinkable.

“Matzah is boring.”

            But I remember, after 9/11, when an outspoken minority of people blamed Israel for the attacks on the World Trade Center, either with wild conspiracy theories about Mossad agents disguising themselves as Muslim Terrorists, or arguments saying that if Israel had never existed then terrorists would never have targeted the United States. The rhetoric made me anxious, but I didn’t see many people taking them seriously. And the extreme backlash against anyone who looked like they could be from the Middle East, or who seemed to be practicing Islam, was much more of an issue. It seemed wrong to focus on some anti-Semitic theories, when there was anti-Muslim violence going on all around me.

            Maybe things started to change with the onset of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, an umbrella movement that included groups that were specifically protesting the presence of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, and groups that believed Israel had no right to exist, the Holocaust never happened, and Jews should be pushed into the sea. As the BDS movement became more popular on college campuses, I heard more stories about Jewish college kids facing demonstrations against Israel on campus that supposedly focused on anti-Zionism as separate from anti-Semitism. The problem with that argument is that Zionism started as a movement to save Jews from life threatening situations in Europe, especially in Russia, in the 19th century, and grew in intensity after six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, just for being Jews. If the criticism had focused on the policies of the current government of Israel, without bleeding into a criticism of the existence of Israel, I could understand; just like you can be a patriotic American, or a friend of the United States, and disagree with the policies of the Trump administration. But anti-Zionism, if it means antagonism to the existence of the state of Israel, and unwillingness to recognize what led to the creation of the state by the United Nations, IS anti-Semitism.

None of this is to say that the Palestinians have been treated well, by the British, or the Jordanians, or the Egyptians, or the Israeli government; damage has been done and continues to be done. But if activists refuse to look at the causes of the complicated and painful current reality in the Middle East, and instead decide that everything is the fault of the Jews, for being there in the first place, then they are falling into old tropes that lead us all back into the darkness. When voices at the edges started to say, out of anger or ignorance, that the word Zionist was comparable to the word Nazi, they crossed a line that is hard to ignore, or forgive.


But, even with all of that rhetoric, I still felt safe at home, in America. And then, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups grew in strength, and terrorist attacks took place in Europe, and then white supremacists carried their tiki torches in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of confederate statues (that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place), and they yelled, “Jews will not replace us.” Wait, what? What do Jews have to do with this?

            And then I started to hear about swastikas on bathroom walls, in Long Island schools, and then synagogues in the United States were attacked. But… so were mosques and churches and schools and movie theaters, and the news people said that it was terrorism in general, not anti-Semitism in particular, no matter what the shooters, or the internet trolls, were saying. I wasn’t sure what to think, or how to feel. I had never directly experienced antisemitism. Microaggressions, sure. Lack of knowledge, or insensitivity about Jewish issues, or lack of historical memory, sure, but nothing like what I’d heard from older Jews, about how it used to be, even in America, when Jews were excluded from professions and schools and towns and clubs just for being Jewish, before and after the Holocaust took six million Jewish lives.

But still, I thought, I’m an American. Three out of four of my grandparents were born in the United States. That should make me safe.

“Safe, American Cricket.”

And then, a few weeks ago, for the first time, someone left anti-Semitic comments on my blog. I couldn’t read those comments from a distance, as if it were news that had nothing to do with me, because it was on MY blog, and it was directed at me. Reading those comments, three by the same author, highlighted for me the fact that I had never been targeted like that before, not on my blog, and not in person, ever. I was always more worried that I would alienate readers by writing about Jewish stuff on my blog because it would be too niche, or boring, than I was worried about facing antisemitism. I was able to remove the comments from my blog easily, and there has been no recurrence, but, I couldn’t forget about them.

            I still feel safe, or as safe as I am capable of feeling. But, anti-Semitism is real to me now in a way it wasn’t before. And the lessons of the Holocaust (be wary of hatred and targeting of people because of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, disabilities, or ethnic group) are more prominent again, for everyone.

It is so easy to blame someone, some group, some minority that you don’t identify with, when things start to fall apart. It’s so easy to project your own self-loathing and guilt and fears onto someone else who is not you, when you feel overwhelmed and hopeless. And it is shockingly easy for a leader in trouble, or seeking more power, to target vulnerable groups and aim societal anger and fear like a firehose in order to gain even more power.

I didn’t realize how easy it was to create baseless hatred, honestly. But now I do. And that really does scare the crap out of me. Because it could all happen again.

“Uh oh.”
“Don’t worry, Mommy. I only hate people who deserve it.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

My Morning at the DMV

(note: this post was written before the shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue this morning)

I had to renew my driver’s license and decided to upgrade to the new version that acts as a sort of domestic passport, because Mom said I should. That meant going to the Department of Motor Vehicles in person. My last visit, ten years ago, wasn’t too bad, so I assumed things would be the same this time and didn’t try too hard to get there before the place opened. Bad idea.

Just as I arrived, the doors opened and a long line of people was walking in. I then spent a half an hour circling the parking lot, trying to find an open spot. Some people are good at following random walkers, stalking them to their cars, and intimidating other drivers away. I am not one of those people. I finally lucked into a free spot, seconds before I was ready to give up. Once inside the building I was sent to my first line of the day. This was the concierge line, where we waited to be told which line to wait on.


“I don’t wait on lines, buster.”

Then I stood on a longer line, and had my paperwork checked and was given a ticket that specified what I was there for and gave me a number. A very high number. Once I left the line, I found a spot on the wooden benches with everyone else, to sit and wait. These benches were clearly chosen by a local chiropractor, hoping to make a lot of money out of people leaving the DMV in pain. I tried to run through all of my neck and shoulder stretches, without banging into people on either side of me, but it didn’t help. I was in an enormous amount of pain, and I’d forgotten to bring a book to read for distraction, so I watched the silent recipe videos on the screen in front of me, and watched the ticket numbers slowly rise. An hour and a half later, or so, I was called to one of the clerk’s windows, to do my vision test, and have my paperwork checked over (there was a scare when the clerk thought my birth certificate might not be valid because there was a scrap missing from the corner of the paper, but he checked with his manager and it was fine). Then there was the identification photo. For some reason they don’t want the pictures taken with glasses on, even though I am close to blind without my glasses. It’s possible that I was looking in the direction of the camera when the picture was taken, but I have no idea.


“Am I facing the right direction?”

Then I was sent back to the benches to wait to be called again. This wait was more like half an hour, not too bad, and my papers were rechecked, and things were typed into the computer. I asked why my papers had to be checked so many times and the second clerk said, protocol, and shrugged. And then I paid, and was given a temporary license, and I was, finally, able to leave.

The relief of walking out of the building was enormous. I felt like I’d been in there for days instead of just a few hours. As soon as I got to the car, as a reward, I decided to drive around the corner to Trader Joe’s, and bought one of every winter squash they had. That almost made the trip seem worth it. But by the time I got home I was barely able to sit up long enough to eat my lunch. The pain in my neck and back was excruciating and the resulting nap was long.


Winter Squashapalooza!

Next task, renewing my passport, or actually, getting an entirely new passport, because the one I have is from age fifteen and has never been renewed because I haven’t been out of the country since that long ago trip to Paris and London. But I need more rest before I move on to that task, and I’d also like to see how the first picture came out, and see if there’s anything I can do to look less like a drunk person when I can’t wear my glasses.

I’m doing all of this because I have the time, while I don’t have an internship, and because I feel like I should be prepared, either for the lovely possibility that I might someday go on a vacation again, or for the less lovely possibility that my country is starting to resemble pre-holocaust Germany and I will need to be able to leave in a hurry. I don’t really believe that that’s going to happen, yet, but it’s a fear, and having a fresh passport would reduce some of the underlying anxiety.

The problem, though, is that dogs don’t get passports. Dogs can be put into quarantine before being allowed to enter certain countries, and they are often put in the cargo hold instead of in the airplane itself, where they belong. I can’t imagine going anywhere that won’t treat my dogs like the worthwhile people they are.


They are refusing to take their passport photos, in protest.

So, more likely than not, I will be staying home. And if the world crashes down around me, I will at least have two forms of I.D., and the dogs, and a huge stash of winter squash to keep me company. The dogs will be thrilled!


They will be thrilled, when they wake up.