In Canton, MA, at the Galvin Middle School, they have an annual ritual, a day of learning and reflection about the Holocaust. I have been a presenter for over 15 years at this event, telling a story about a young Hungarian woman, Gieselle Hirsch. Her family endured anti-Semitic insults, avoidance/isolation, discrimination, violence and deportation to a death camp. Hirsch’s story has always rung various chords in my world, but never more than now. At one point in her story, she and all the representatives of the Jewish families in her town were asked to write down the name of each member of their family and their age.They were told that these lists would to be used to expand their quota of ration stamps. The lists were used 2 days later to round up every Jew in the town. After the story I asked the students if this was any different from a forced registry of all Muslims living in America. They decided that it was not.
As a follow-up to the story we looked at a ladder of prejudice. Its first rung is gossip and hate speech. When enough of this is planted and repeated, we can begin to fear and objectify a people. This leads to the next rungs of avoidance and discrimination. Once you have legally marginalized a people, doing violence to them is just one more rung up the ladder. We have a President-elect who called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. He generalizes, in degrading ways, again and again about populations from urban blacks to chunky women. He is the king of hate speech, and he is our President elect.
Telling Gieselle Hirsch’s story in fall 2016, I was reminded that totalitarian control comes in small increments. For the Jews of 1930s Europe it began with gossip and moved to isolation from institutions of higher learning and eventually the streets where they were allowed to live. The Star Decree, where my people were forced to wear a 3 inch star of David on their coats, was just another incremental step towards objectification. We know where these behaviors culminated.
Let us be vigilant, loud, and deeply protective of our democracy during these years to come. Let us speak and act in ways that conserve and protect what is left of our natural world. Let us step up to make sure that our children and their children have a free, healthy world to grow in.