I wrote this at the turn of the 90s, for the school paper at UCLA. My submitted title was "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down", the title of the Ramones song about Reagan's laying a wreath at a cemetary where German SS were buried.
Oh, for those heady carefree days!
Jews in Europe still fear Anti-Semitism
A friend of mine was recently in Europe on business. He told me of an experience he had in a Salzburg beerhall.
Sitting next to him in the crowded hall was an old man. This old man began talking to my friend in that outgoing, slightly insistent manner that the elderly sometimes possess. From his youthful point of view, my friend could not be quite sure whether this old fellow’s undisciplined ramblings were due to the passage of time taking its toll on his faculties, or whether the wisdom of his years had prompted the elimination of the trivial social barriers that plague the rest of us.
My friend was listening halfheartedly to the old man’s discourse about his family, about Salzburg, about beer. He proudly proclaimed his age to be eighty. Immediately, my friend’s mind began to calculate: eighty years old. 1990. The Anschluss was 1938. This old man was twenty-eight when the Germans marched into Austria, promising the eager and cheering population that they would be partners in the glorious Third Reich.
The old man’s advanced years were evident to my friend from the outset, of course, but there’s nothing like cold hard numbers to trigger fears that could have otherwise been evaded.
The old man scrutinized my friend. “Spanish?” he asked. My friend looked away from the old man’s gaze. “No,” he said, “American”. My friend is Jewish, sharing with others of Mediterranean origin deep eyes and dark complexion. And so while telling a complete truth, my friend hid the answer that he reflexively feared the old man was looking for.
My friend had arrived in Salzburg from Stuttgart in neighboring Germany. He has business and social ties to the tiny, surviving Jewish community there. The individuals he knows have various strategies of dealing with their lot; of living in a land, on a continent, that is little more than a mass grave for their murdered nation.
Some people proclaim their German-ness hoping that all can hear. They are successful members of the German establishment, hiding their identity as best they can so as not to arouse the anger of their German hosts. “The Germans don’t want to hear about it, and the few of us who remain are terrified of getting them started again,” seems to be their argument. Others, fearing the establishment will never fully welcome them, yet equally fearful of abandoning their identity, remain on the very fringes of society, thinking their invisibility to be mutually beneficial: freedom from guilt and anger for the Germans, and freedom to survive for the Jews.
Both strategies stem from the same reasoning, of course, and both methods, throughout history, have invariably failed. If Jews, out of fear, align themselves with the established order, the disenfranchised Left labels them “Zionist conspirators” and “financiers” in a monarchist/capitalist nation, while the disenfranchised Right labels them “Bolsheviks” and “Power hungry” in a socialist nation.
If Jews keep to themselves and their own, the disenfranchised left brands them “aloof” and “enemies of the revolution” in a monarchist/capitalist nation, while the disenfranchised Right labels them “foreign elements” and “unpatriotic” in a socialist nation. And so policies of terror and hate against the Jews are continually re-legitimized as power shifts from camp to camp.
In Europe today, these historical trends continue in a most predictable fashion. New Rightwing nationalist parties in Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere have begun anti-Jewish campaigns in their demagogic efforts to gain power, implicating once fringe, now establishment-Jews who have become part of the Communist machinery in the postwar period. These Jews entered the establishment in order to ease the hostility of the Leftist elite that would otherwise have accused them of not supporting the workers’ state. Now, they are paying the price for acting on their fears, and they are scared once again. The cycle continues.
Austria has elected a president suspected, even at the time of his campaign, of being a Nazi actively involved in the deportation of Jews to the death camps. In France, a Nazi sympathizer is gaining popular support, setting into motion a moral drift that has thus far targeted only the Jewish dead, but soon enough may target the living.
Right wing groups in the Russian Republic have employed threats and intimidation, and sometimes violence against re-emerging Jewish organizations and individuals. In Poland, they have added a new twist to their famed legacy of antiJewish sentiment: Jew-hating without Jews to hate.
It remains to be seen what the reunification of Germany will bring to that land and to the rest of Europe. But, interestingly enough, should the Right rise to power once again, their inevitable accusations against the Jews will, for once, probably be accurate: “The Jews were against our reunification!”
Of course, the old man talking to my friend in that Salzburg beerhall was very possibly just a friendly, lonely old soul, looking for someone to talk to, genuinely curious about the national origins of a foreign-looking young man sitting next to him. But then again, maybe he wasn’t.