Begin, Again: Trump Through the Eyes of a Holocaust Survivor

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Members of the Jewish group, IfNotNow, and their allies protest Breitbart News and Stephen Bannon in Beverly Hills, California. 

I began my life with the Nazis, and now I may end my life with the Nazis,” the painter Vera Klement, an 86-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, said. It was election night in America, and as Vera and I sat in front of her TV and watched President-elect Donald J. Trump take the stage to the strains of the Air Force One soundtrack, she exhibited little shock, but rather a horrible, quiet awe.

The Trump campaign’s choice of music, like so much associated with his election, was an affront to her. A secular Jew who worships at the altar of high art, Vera is a still-working painter whose pieces are included in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian, and dozens of other collections. Seeing Trump stride onto the stage to music originally written for a celluloid commander-in-chief was almost too much for her to bear. “I’m terrified,” Vera said as we stayed up late into the night, letting the reality of the election sink in. The weeks that have followed have done nothing to abate her fears.

I have known and loved Vera, as a friend and a mentor, for more than 15 years. I have seen her ferocity and her fierce, life-sustaining will. I have born witness to her sadness, and been grateful when she has entrusted me, during our long conversations, with its causes. But I have never, until the 2016 election, seen Vera afraid.

She had hoped that November 8 would be the postlude, not the prelude, to one of the ugliest political chapters in American history. She had hoped, but had never quite believed. When those around her insisted that the Trump phenomenon would inevitably collapse under the weight of so much hate, Vera sensed something else altogether: Donald Trump could do this. Her lived experience had not made her paranoid—it had made her prescient.

Vera grew up in Sopot (Zoppot), Poland, a seaside town outside Gdánsk (Danzig), the “free city” that gave rise to Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. In 1933, the Nazi Party won a majority of assembly seats in the region. Two years later, after the Nuremberg laws were passed, Vera and her mother, father, and older brother were forced into hiding.  

Her memories of Kristallnacht, the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place during two nights in November 1938, retain a powerful hold over her. In her in-progress memoir, Blunt Edge, Vera writes, “We heard screaming from the street below … flames and smoke surged from the synagogue across the street, heating the windows of our cousins’ apartment. We stood back, in fear of being seen from below as our pink temple burned.”  

This distant but still-painful past shapes Vera’s responses to our American present. She knows that a storyline that blames “the other” for a nation’s woes can have a horrible, dark allure, especially during difficult economic times. She understands how easily a charismatic demagogue, armed with a savant-like ability to speak to and conjure ancient fears (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists) can transform members of a community into a threat to that same community. She still wears the scars of being rendered a stereotype: no longer an individual but instead a nameless, faceless member of a maligned and hunted collective.

In Trump’s calls for the expulsion of millions of undocumented immigrants, Vera hears echoes of her own story. She thinks about the anxieties expressed by Hispanic children who fear their parents will be deported, and recalls her own childhood. It was not the reality of the Gestapo’s knock on the door that most altered Vera’s young psyche (though that reality, when it came, was terrifying enough). It was the way the ever-present dread of that knock shifted something fundamental in the home. A family that lives in constant fear is a family that is not fully living. 

Vera is painfully aware of something else: how marginalizing and demonizing a people changes their relationship to the larger world, and their connections to those they love. “When the Nazis turned my father into a hunted man, he became more harsh with me in our home,” says Vera. And after the Gestapo broke into their home, and Vera’s father was powerless to stop it, she also saw him differently. “In my eyes, he was no longer the strong father who had the power to protect a young girl. That must have been awful for him.” 

The president-elect’s rendering of all Syrian refugees as potential public enemies (“We have no idea who these people are. … Watch what’s going to happen, folks. It’s not going to be pretty.”) and the assertion of Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser, General Michael T. Flynn, that “fear of Muslims is rational” are also troubling to Vera. She is more aware than most that lives hang in the balance when leaders use such words.

Vera’s own world turned on America’s willingness to open its doors to her. Arriving in New York City on December 23, 1938, after being granted visas in the wake of Kristallnacht, Vera and her family walked down the gangplank of the S.S. Pilsudski and encountered, for the first time, the city that would become their home. She does not romanticize that moment, and writes in her memoir that the New York that greeted them was “cold and gray … a landscape with no horizon.” But it was their chance to begin again.

Of course, millions of others who sought refuge in America were never given that chance, and Vera is well aware of that, too. She once took me through an album of family photos, stopping at a page with a young, blond girl. “That was my cousin. They killed her,” she said quietly, her words a reminder of the price that can be paid by those we close our borders to.

It’s important to note that Trump’s inflammatory resistance to refugees is in many ways a symptom—and not the cause—of our country’s growing hesitation to open its borders. But public statements still matter, and Trump’s ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric is making refugees already in the United States more vulnerable to discrimination and violence, while deepening social and political resistance to opening our doors to future displaced persons. This isn’t just unfortunate. It’s un-American.

Let’s be clear: Many of the comparisons being made between Trumpism and the rise of Nazism are imprecise. Marginalizing a people is not the same thing as exterminating a people, and that distinction matters, particularly in our fact-challenged media landscape. But Trump’s seemingly permanent campaign of group disparagement, his willingness to fan the flames of race and religious-based hatred, and his propagation of dangerous conspiracy theories all are tactics that have been used by fascist dictators. And precedent matters as we assess the words and actions of our elected leaders.

Even the media’s underestimation and mockery of Trump has a chilling historical parallel. Andrew Nagorski, author of the book Hitlerland, noted in a 2012 interview, “You had American [journalists] meeting Hitler and saying, ‘This guy is a clown. He’s like a caricature of himself.’ And a lot of them went through this whole litany about how even if Hitler got into a position of power, other German politicians would somehow be able to control him. A lot of German politicians believed this themselves. Of course, everyone began to reassess that very quickly after he took power.”   

Alec Baldwin’s brilliant Saturday Night Live interpretation of Trump has its own precedent: Charlie Chaplin’s starring role in The Great Dictator, the classic 1940 film satirizing fascism, anti-Semitism, and Nazism. Chaplin, too, later admitted to underestimating the scope and scale of the Nazi threat, writing in his 1964 biography that if he had been fully aware of the horrors of the concentration camps, he never could have made the movie.

Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart News Network, an online media outlet that has peddled racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic content, has done nothing to assuage fears about the Trump cabinet and its potential sympathies (or lack thereof). A Breitbart headline published on Bannon’s watch called Weekly Standard editor William Kristol a “Renegade Jew” for daring to oppose the Trump nomination and trafficked the same ugly stereotypes as the “Achtung Jude!” World War II Nazi propaganda poster. The chilling and corrosive effect of such ad hominem hatred should never be underestimated.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented reports of more than 1,000 incidents against ethnic and religious minorities, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and other vulnerable groups in the month after the election. Trump’s response to the sharp rise in hate crimes has been to downplay before he disavows. “I am very surprised to hear that,” he said mildly when CBS’s Lesley Stahl asked him about the spike in hate crimes in the first days after his election, going on to assert that it was probably “one or two instances … a very small amount,” before finally calling on any supporters involved to “stop it.”  

There’s something deeply disingenuous—at best—about Trump’s understated reaction to the violence that his candidacy and election seem to have unleashed, as Richard Cohen, SPLC’s president, noted in a statement. “Mr. Trump claims he’s surprised his election has unleashed a barrage of hate across the country. But he shouldn’t be. It’s the predictable result of the campaign he waged.”

Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center are doing vital work monitoring the rise in domestic hate crimes in the Trump era. Yet the human costs of the cultural climate we now find ourselves in are harder to quantify. When The Atlantic released its chilling footage of white supremacist leader Richard Spencer raising his right arm and shouting “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” at the November Washington, D.C., conference of the National Policy Institute (a group that has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”), Vera told me that the news itself had come to feel like a violent force. “Each day,” she says, “brings another blow.”  

In the face of those blows, Vera continues to work. Her gorgeous paintings—many of which seek to show us the causes and consequences of the Holocaust and other social injustices—are her resistance. 

But she is 86 now, and painfully aware that the reckoning she believes, or perhaps now only hopes, is coming—a full disavowal of the ugliest aspects of the Trump era—may not happen in her lifetime. Watching her grapple with that reality has been unbearably sad.  

Among the many injustices being meted out by our president-elect, and those who surround and are inspired by him, is his robbing of the peace of mind Vera Klement so deserves. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, that is a small tragedy. But it speaks volumes about the larger world in which we now live. 

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