Translating the Holocaust

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was at the center of a firestorm when she referred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention centers as “concentration camps.” In an Instagram Live video, the freshman Democrat asserted: “The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and this is exactly what they are. … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say ‘never again.’”

Ocasio-Cortez instantly drew both support and ire for her comment. I wondered whether this kerfuffle was a question of semantics or an analogy gone awry. After all, concentration camps call up images of the Nazi genocide, and genocide is not what is happening on the border. On the other hand, as Andrea Pitzer, author of “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps,” recently told Esquire, “Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”

Concentration camps did not start out as brutal slave labor camps or extermination camps. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg sagely and calmly wrote in The Washington Post recently that, “We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country now, and they’re known as some of the stages of genocide first articulated by Genocide Watch in 1996.”

When I watch the news clips or listen to radio interviews from the border, I shake as I hear my mother’s Spanish, now my Spanish, being spoken. Ocasio-Cortez and I share the touching intimacy of a common language. Spanish was the language of our childhood, the language of our grandparents. It was the language that distinguished me as a Latina Jew. Though it wasn’t always easy, I’m proud that I was a bilingual baby.

My cousin was 6 months old when she fled Cuba with her parents. I can only imagine the horror if she had been separated from my aunt and uncle. These children who are captured on the border are herded into cages where, terribly frightened and very hungry, they are vulnerable to crimes and misdemeanors by officials in charge. They are prisoners of a war about which no one is talking. I read that a border guard sexually assaulted a 4-year-old girl.

My Cuban relatives were never here illegally, and neither are the migrants in this administration’s concentration camps masquerading as euphemistic detention centers. It’s important to point out that anyone declaring asylum at the border of the United States has a right to a hearing and to due process.

Sometimes Holocaust vocabulary contains the only words that can describe the human rights tragedy happening at our southern border. We’re on the cusp of something revolutionary in terms of our thinking about the memory of the Holocaust. Using some of its vocabulary cautiously is wholly appropriate in extreme situations, like the one we face today. For example, visit T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights online and find a picture of a woman holding a sign that says: “This is what ‘Never Again’ looks like.” How does that dishonor the memory of the Holocaust? Those words are an improvised Kaddish—a prayer of mourning—for the 6 million. The words are also a prayer of optimism. When “Never Again” is evoked it shows that the victims of the Holocaust did not die in vain.

This past year I have spent time in a church basement, and what I do there is called companionship. That is, I watch over a family who is on the run from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE. The people I’ve grown to care about are always a hair’s breadth away from being deported back to the poverty and violence that plague their Central American country.

There is a script for me to follow if ICE comes to arrest this family, my family. I will ask to see a warrant. If they have one, I will let them in, but not before I’ve allowed enough time for the woman and her family to hide behind the broad lectern on the altar of the church. The altar is the most sacred space in the building. To arrest innocent people there would taint the holiness of the place. I will tape the incident with my iPhone and say, “This is the last opportunity you have to check your conscience before you take these innocent people away.” I will then go off-script and ask the ICE agent a final question before these people are handcuffed: “Are you sure you want to take this beautiful mother away from her American-born children?” I will ask again and again until she and her children are out of sight.

One afternoon, the church basement flooded. The mother and I mopped the floor of her living area together in companionable silence until she sadly riffed: “The people here are nice, but I wish they spoke Spanish like you. I don’t know why it doesn’t matter that my children are American. Hace meses que no veo el sol. I haven’t seen the sun in months.”

Good Germans asked themselves in the 1930s what they could do to help their fellow Jewish citizens. (Yes, another imperfect analogy.) We can donate today to organizations like HIAS and T’ruah. When federations like Combined Jewish Philanthropies sponsor trips to border cities like McAllen and San Diego, we can make every effort to go. We can lobby our representatives in Washington, D.C., to stop this madness. We can vote. And we can we sit in church basements in close, loving silence until this nightmare is over.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/translating-the-holocaust/

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My Father’s Silence

A few years after my father died in 2002, I sent away for his naval records. K. Harold Bolton, who served in the South Pacific during the Second World War, never talked about his time in the U.S. Navy. His silence about everything made me a snooping little girl, which turned me into a curious adult. There was nothing more I wanted to know than what my father had seen from the deck of his supply ship.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. A recent New York Times front-page article bore the headline: “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.” These children who span the generations want the same thing: to crack open their fathers’ silence about their war.

My father’s silence and his subsequent secrets have haunted me all of my life. My father, who was part of the “Greatest Generation,” is also a member of what the Times describes as the “Quietest.”

His records arrived in a thick packet wrapped in brown butcher’s paper. As I avidly read them, the information that floated to the top was that he was exceptionally stubborn, inexperienced and always one of the youngest officers on any ship to which he was assigned. The numerous Reports on the Fitness of Officers in my father’s file consistently indicate that although he stood out for his bravery, loyalty and patriotism, in the end, he was an average, even naïve, officer.

This was not the answer I had expected when I examined the mystery of my father. Although I was thrilled to have the status reports, solid evidence that revealed facets of the man, they surprised — and ultimately, disappointed — me. I was so sure these reports would confirm that he was larger than life and, at last, make him understandable. Instead, the reports didn’t mesh with the man I thought he was. From the few pictures I had seen of him in uniform, I expected a capable officer who comported himself like a much older man.

Maybe this is the way most children see their parents — through a lens of time and story that ultimately fuses into lore. My father was the man who did push-ups every morning on the green shag rug of his bedroom. He was the man who walked a brisk two miles a day, even in winter. He expected his orders to be followed as he gave them. Yet blue-back nights when my coughing from asthma shook the house, my father stood guard by my bedroom window, gazing out, one of the few times I felt secure and loved.

I found a handwritten note in his file in which my perceptions of him as a young man became clearer. In the letter to his commanding officer, my father laid out his reasons for disobeying orders. He had been waiting to ship out in San Francisco the first Christmas after Pearl Harbor and wrote that he had decided to give the men under his command three additional hours of liberty to boost morale. At the very least, that unilateral decision must have incurred a reprimand.

I also came upon a punishment meted out to my father. It happened toward the end of the war, when his commanding officer remanded him to quarters for 24 hours for going AWOL for a day. Disappearing like that didn’t seem in character. Yet the information rounded out the profile I was putting together of an officer who did not follow established ship routines and, according to notations from his commanding officer, did not “wish to acquaint himself with them.”

My father’s stubbornness also surprised me. He never properly learned to use the sextant for navigational calculations. According to his file, he was resistant to acquiring this new skill. But a spiritual part of me thinks that perhaps it was because those kinds of calculations demystified the heavens, while my father wanted to romanticize them. Over the years, I had seen glimpses of Dad, the romantic, who cried when he listened to opera on Saturday afternoons. Dad, the patriot, who cried when he listened to John Philip Sousa’s crisp, booming marches. Dad, the accountant, who finally, reluctantly, learned to follow established routines.

My brother, who became the keeper of the Navy stories Dad chose to share, had another version of Dad’s punishment to supplement the Navy records. Our father was never AWOL, he says. The real story is that Lt. Bolton had fraternized with the ship’s black cook, called Cookie. Our father had stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around a man who had just received news that his brother had died while fighting in Europe. He called Cookie by his given name, Ernie. The lieutenant also removed his hat in a show of mourning, making him technically out of uniform.

Finally, the lieutenant wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship.

Contrary to the jumbled, sometimes discouraging, naval reports, there was a promotion for my father by the end of the war. By the time the Navy honorably discharged Lt. Cmdr. Bolton in 1945, he had proven himself an exceptional man.

This essay was originally published on Cognoscenti https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2019/06/14/my-fathers-silence-world-war-2-navy-judy-bolton-fasman