Not being Jewish, I never had any connection to the Holocaust. I recall being naturally horrified when I first learned about it in school and understood intellectually it was the darkest expression of inhumanity in recent memory. It didn’t help that my father, a Polish immigrant, never acknowledged any facet of his life prior to arriving in the United States. Despite my mother’s private exhortations, he refused to teach my brother and me Polish or share any cultural memory.
Then in August 1998 the family got the opportunity to visit Poland and meet my father’s heretofore unacknowledged aunts, uncles, and cousins. During that trip we traveled to Pacanów, a small town in the south central part of the country, where my grandfather was from and much of his family still lived. It is there for the first time I became aware of my connection to the Holocaust in the form of a monument to a local hero, a priest named Wincenty Wojtaskiewicz, my great grandfather’s brother, to whom Nazi officials had offered a leadership position in Hitler’s church. He refused. Deported to Auschwitz September 1, 1942 — exactly three years after Germany invaded Poland — he died nine days later.
For about two years afterward I was totally obsessed with the Holocaust. I poured over books, wrote poems, essays and stories, trying to make sense of its connection to me. My Polish grandmother living in Miami sent me typed sheets about my uncle, but written in Polish, I couldn’t read them.
Eventually, not being able to get anywhere, with an internet still in its infancy, I got on with life. I finished graduate school, started teaching high school English, met my wife, got married, had kids. I assumed I would at some point return to researching Uncle Wincenty if for no other reason than curiosity. The fact he adhered to his faith when he must have realized he would vanish from recognition made his story compelling. Being Catholic and a priest made him even more so since most Holocaust victims were Jewish.
Perhaps it’s everything happening in the periphery — January 6 investigations, the rise of far-right domestic terror groups, the pandemic and all the politics surrounding it, book bans, conspiracy theories, the republican party’s open embrace of fascism — that has re-kindled my interest in researching my uncle. The internet has been better for this than 20 years ago, but most searches have produced amateur sites in Polish (thank you, Google Translate) and haven’t really provided more information than I already had. A friend suggested I contact the New York Catholic diocese. No one responded. I even sent a message to the Vatican through its online portal. Nothing from there either.
Then one day in last month, while scrolling my Twitter feed, I saw some posts from the United States Holocaust Museum recognizing victims in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Month. I figured I would try there. I forgot I had even had until a few weeks later when I received Uncle Wincenty’s Red Cross-issued post war death certificate and cards citing a publication featuring his name kept in the Arolson Archives in Germany.
Am I going to scream my uncle’s name from the rafters? Write tortured poems about him? A book?
I still intend to one day return to Poland to see what more I can find, but it’s unlikely for now.
What I am going to do right here at home is re-commit myself to the struggle against anything that even remotely reeks of the intolerance, ignorance and megalomania that fomented the fascism that killed my uncle and 11 million others. Living in the 21st-century United States, that might seem lofty and simplistic. The chances of seeing the exact conditions responsible for the Holocaust are unlikely, but if we don’t believe fascism can happen here, that democracy is self-sustaining, we are marching out of the realm of sincere ignorance into the swamp of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called conscientious stupidity.
The lights are flashing red.
Instead of disavowing the far-right fringe brandishing Confederate flags and Nazi salutes, the republican party has opened the door to it assuming powerful positions in state, local, and federal government, boards of elections and school boards. Since Donald Trump left office, we have experienced an increase — not decrease — in blatant authoritarian behavior.
For example, immediately following the attempted coordinated coup against Congress on January 6, 2021, republican party leaders condemned it as “not what we stand for.” For a blink there, it looked like, after four years of giving Trump a pass, his own party had had enough. As proceedings for his second impeachment got underway, though, those same republicans back-pedaled from condemnation to consolation, claiming the seditionists who attacked police, breached the Capitol, smeared feces on priceless paintings, threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence, and stole government property, were “Antifa;” then they were “tourists.” Now they have censured Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for not going along with that assessment, insisting the chaos that ensued is “legitimate political discourse.”
This is just one example and it didn’t come out of nowhere. From the moment he put his hand on the Bible to his walking out of the White House for the last time with classified documents, he ignored, denigrated, and/or just flat-out broke every norm and law he thought shouldn’t apply to him. We’ve had criminals in the Oval Office before, but none were afforded such carte blanche as “the former guy.”
This isn’t a jeremiad against Trump, though; that’s too simple. He’s gone. More damaging is how the party that had every opportunity to eschew him has become his embodiment, that the corporate media structure still can’t resist his vile siren song, that we have as a society become desensitized to the disturbing rhetoric and behavior coming from not Trump supporters but republican lawmakers. Think of Rep. Madison Cawthorn urging mothers to raise their boys to be “monsters.” Think of Arizona Representative Paul Gosar posting a threatening anime video of him killing President Joe Biden and cutting off Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s head. Think of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene referring to her colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar, when she said, “Never apologize to Islamic terrorist sympathizers, communists, or those who fund murder with our tax dollars.”
Now we’ve actually reached a point where wealthy dark-money right-wing groups are enlisting “parents” as foot soldiers in a crusade against books featuring African American and LGBTQ characters or written by African American or LGBTQ authors. Some are suggesting the books be burned, right out of the Nazi playbook. The goal, of course, is to inhibit people’s ability to learn history, because therein lies the stories challenging white supremacy, oligarchy, and intolerance.
Never would I imagine we’d be at a place in this country where “serious” conversations about banning books would be taking place. Never would I imagine an entire political party would oppose expanding voting rights. Never would I imagine the country my father chose to immigrate to 55 years ago sliding closer to fascism.
And yet, the response from most: Meh.
That’s the biggest threat. We could have all the problems conceivable, and as long as people refuse to tolerate the slightest hint of injustice, we’re fine. But when we let the small things go by, the big things won’t be able to be stopped.
There’s historical precedent for this.
Milton Mayer was a reporter for the Chicago Sun in the 1940s and 50s.
Ten years after World War II, he wondered how Germany, the most cultured country in Europe with a strong democratic republic, could have slipped into fascism so quickly.
So he traveled to Germany and befriended 10 average German citizens: a college professor, high school teacher, baker, janitor, tailor’s apprentice, cabinetmaker and volunteer firefighter, salesman, bill collector, bank clerk, and a police officer.
What they told Mayer, chronicled in his book They Thought They Were Free, should serve as a warning to all–even the “invincible” United States.
The college professor reported:
“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.
“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it — please try to believe me–unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”
Explaining what happens when we “put our heads down” and try to just get on with our lives, he added:
“You see, one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.
“You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not? Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.
“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none.
“In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’
“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic.
“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and the smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked — if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33.
“But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.
“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jew swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.
“The world you live in — your nation, your people — is not the world you were in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays.
“But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God.”
The Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum wrote in a recent piece titled, “The Bad Guys Are Winning“:
“If the 20th century was the story of liberal democracy’s progress toward victory over other ideologies — communism, fascism, virulent nationalism — the 21st century is, so far, a story of the reverse.”
Our “Great Depression” of the 1930s was part of a global depression that sent people scrambling for anything and anyone who would promise them respite, succor, and hope.
Most European countries embraced fascists, namely Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Japan did as well.
We could have gone that way too.
Instead, we elected Franklin Roosevelt, who not only promised relief from our economic and social woes, but returned us to a more democratic, prosperous society by implementing progressive reforms intended to lift people up instead of cutting them down.
If we hadn’t risen to the challenge, we likely wouldn’t have been prepared to take on and ultimately defeat European fascism when it came to our shores.
Don’t think there weren’t Nazi sympathizers and fascists among us.
The difference was, we chose democracy, for all its frustrations and imperfections.
My uncle and the many millions murdered fade further into history with each passing month, which means our institutional memory of that time is almost gone. Couple that with suppression of information and the spread of disinformation, and we’ve got ourselves a society teetering on the edge of strongman authoritarianism.
Adolf Hitler was a sick man, but he ascended to power partly because the German government didn’t take him seriously, believing it could keep him under control. Little by little, he seized more of that control, accumulated more power, until it was too late. It happened slowly, imperceptibly. No one suspected the country of J.S. Bach, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Hermann Hesse would resort to crematoria, death camps, and the barbaric crusade to eliminate an entire race.
Yet that’s what happened.
My uncle, as are the millions like him, remains a symbol, an example of what can happen when a society doesn’t heed the warnings, the cracks in the national facade. It starts with dismissing inflammatory rhetoric as just bluster and “political gamesmanship.” It continues with putting dangerous people in power; people become desensitized and tune out; those in power who shouldn’t be consolidate it; the apathetic blindly follow; more norms are destroyed; more power is consolidated, more democracy lost. When the atrocities occur, they’re ignored, explained away, or dismissed as “fake news,” because with the total consolidation of power, those who control the message control the story — HIS story. HER story. THEIR story. Our story.