Refugee. Dad.

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My dad ( shown here as little boy with his older sisters, circa 1936) was a child refugee. He and his two sisters and mother fled Hitler in 1939, ended up in a Refugee camp in Havana Cuba and eventually the United States.

They were lucky. Many refugees were refused entry. My Aunt Maja, Dad’s older sister remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the ship the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.

In the 1990s my dad used to go speak to elementary  school children, sharing assimilation stories with new child immigrants. He told the kids about being new to the country, not speaking English, trying to figure out how to make friends. One day he saw a popular kid throw his lunch bag away. He threw his away too, hoping to impress the other kids, but they just ignored him. Now he was lonely and hungry.

Dad has been dead 15 years. He left this earth before  three of his grandchildren were born. He missed seeing his granddaughter Emily (shown below in 1991) grow into a beautiful woman.  He missed lap tops, cell phones and Facebook. He missed 9/11 and the endless “wars on terror,” the Patriot Act and Guantanamo detainees,  Abu Ghraib and Drone warfare.

This week he is in my heart more the usual as I try to imagine his reaction to demagogues posing as governors all trying out populist fascism to see if it suits them. No Refugees in MY state. Only Christians in MY country… 

 

When I was 22, Dad and I visited the concentration camp where his five-year old best friend was incinerated. In the guest book everyone wrote “Never Again.” At the time I was involved in the Central America movement. I knew that my own government was funding and training an army in El Salvador led by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who considered Hitler his mentor. For the rest of the trip Dad and I discussed the meaning of “Never Again.” How do we make sure one terror does not lead to another retaliatory terror? Does the slogan mean anything if we only apply it to “our” people?

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Never Again.

 

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#RefugeesWelcome

Maja Gorland, my beloved 92 year old Aunt, sharing refugee stories. Rest in Peace.

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My Aunt Maja, sister of my father, just passed away. She was 92 years old. Below is a draft of my account of  visiting  her during my perimeter bike trip in 2011/2012 when she was still living in Miami Springs, Florida.  

Warnings about biking in Miami traffic, accumulated. We decided to take them seriously, caught the monorail in Hallandale, then walked into Miami Springs to stay with my Aunt Maja in the home she had lived in for 70 years with her husband and four children.  There was not room inside for us, so we put our sleeping bags out on the porch. I spent the next afternoon in the living room, Maya in her wheelchair and me on the couch, talking about her mother — my grandmother.

I was eleven when grandma died. Maja, with her lilting German accent, is my connection to her. She also inherited grandma’s authoritative personality – kindness and firmness intertwined.

“My mother was a nurse during World War One” Maja reminded me, then added a detail I had never heard. “The radiologist she worked with was killed. She took his place. Eighteen years old and no medical schooling. She was incredibly proud of her military service.”
Despite her loyalty to Germany, Grandma somehow knew before many of her Jewish neighbors, that to survive they had to leave the country. “She sent your grandpa away a year before,” Maja explained, “so when the Gestapo came looking, he was already gone.”

Dad had told me about Nazi soldiers tearing apart their home, looking in closets, under the bed, in drawers for his father. Dad was five years old at the time. He remembered thinking  these places were much too small for his father to fit. The  apartment was always dark after that, shades drawn.

Grandma snuck the children out of the country assuming someone else’s identity. She left parents and siblings, knowing she would probably never see them again. They tried to get into Switzerland but were denied entry, a fact I discovered in 2005, when I received reparations from the Swiss government.

Maya was ten years older than my Dad and their memories reflect their age gap. On the ship to the Americas teenage Maja flirted with young men, meeting the one she would marry. Dad hid under his mother’s skirts, watching Orthodox Jewish ladies in the women’s room take off their wigs, revealing bald heads. They landed in Havana and lived in a refugee camp there. Dad remembered his mom had a job pulling the heads off chickens. Maja remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.

To get from Havana to Miami where my grandfather was waiting, my Grandma went regularly to the embassy to see if her name was on the list. When another woman whose name was called did not show up, she claimed to be her. She sold her jewelry to the Havana synagogue to pay for their passage to Miami. In 1987 I visited that synagogue in Havana. They had a display case of the jewelry refugees exchanged for passage.

In Florida, Dad and his other sister Helga started school. Dad remembered first grade, the sting of mispronouncing “h is for hatpins” so the last syllable sounded like “penis.” Maja got a job to help provide for the little ones.

When the family moved to New York City, Maja and her husband stayed in Florida and bought the home along the canal in Miami Springs, where on hot  November morning in 2011, we ate sweetbreads with cousins.

I asked Maja what kind of music grandma liked.

“She had no time for music.” she said shortly.

Then for some reason I asked, “What would the soundtrack for grandma’s life sound like?”

She did not hesitate. “Da Da Da Dum.  Beethoven’s 5th.”

I wish I had asked Maja what her own soundtrack would be. I would imagine it would be something equally strong and embracing.

Netanyahu Displays his Racism

It has often been said by me, that there are two equally dangerous historical myths about the Holocaust.

Myth 1) That it didn’t happen or is exaggerated.  It is hard for us to exaggerate the horror of burning millions of people in ovens because they were Jews. Others were also targeted for extermination because they were Romani (Gypsies), Gay, Communist.

Myth 2) That it was so singularly horrible that it can not be compared to any other human atrocity.   Nothing happens in history exactly the same way twice. But the Holocaust does not represent a unique experience of mass trauma, genocide, extermination. It is part of the history of crimes against humanity, like slavery, Native genocide and too many other examples. If we refuse to compare what happened in Germany to other atrocities we will never understand how to stop them from happening.

Both myths make the quest to rid the world of genocide that much more remote. Now there is a third dangerous myth, put forward by Netanyahu on October 20th 2015.

To quote the New York Times: 

“Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech to the Zionist Congress on Tuesday night that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews.” The prime minister said that the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had protested to Hitler that “they’ll all come here,” referring to Palestine.

“ ‘So what should I do with them?’ ” Mr. Netanyahu quoted Hitler as asking Mr. Husseini. “He said, ‘Burn them.’ ”

 

It is not just that Netanyahu’s assertion is untrue.  It is the dehumanizing RACIAL assumption, the Hitler-like tactic of brushing a whole people with the false accusation about one person, that makes it so dangerous.  For even if it was true it would tell us as little about Palestinian leadership today as the reality of Hitler’s culpability tells us about current German leadership or people.

In fact the speech tells only about Netanyahu and his demonization  of a people in order to justify his policies of second class citizenship,  state terrorism and the robbery of land and resources of Palestinians. In both deed and propaganda he is borrowing from Hitler’s playbook.

 

Appreciation, Appropriation, and the Power of History

 

 

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In 1981 I visited Eastern Europe with my father. It was a roots trip, to visit the coal mining town where he was born. Gleiwitz was German until after WWII when it became part of Poland. Dad was born the year Hitler came to power.  His family managed to escape but thousands of other Jews in the region did not. Behind the iron curtain we dug up memories and found the names of his five- year olds friends on concentration camp rolls. We hung out in cemeteries and the ruins of Jewish neighborhoods. We visited antique stores where shopkeepers displayed menorahs and other Jewish paraphernalia.

It was a trend at the time, to collect such items. I was shocked, but being from the United States I recognized the phenomenon: The theft and fetisization of all things Native American followed forced removals, genocidal marches, and the creation of reservations and boarding schools meant to erase peoples and  cultures.

This erasing with one hand, robbing and appropriating with the other is a process that is ongoing.

Native and Latino writers Teresa Ortiz,  Rhiana Yazzie, Emmanuel Ortiz, and R. Vincent Moniz, Jr at the Loft  Literary Center on Monday October 19, spoke of this  ongoing theft.

Fall is the season of appropriations.  Emmanuel Ortiz talked of Day of the Dead sculls as an art project devoid of spiritual content,  offensive Halloween costumes and football mascots. R. Vincent Moniz, Jr noted that he sees it all the time every day, from the Blackhawk sweatshirts worn in his Phillips neighborhood and violent murals at the St. Paul Capital, to the butter aisle at the grocery store.

Appropriation includes obvious obscenities like the “Cleveland Indian” mascots and more subtle but no less damaging examples of practices and accoutrements,  stolen and misused without understanding or respect. Emmanuel Ortiz noted that power is central to appropriation and other types of exchange. He talked of  the unequal exchange inherent in Americans crossing the border because the drinks are cheap and Mexicans crossing because the jobs are north.

Rhiana Yazzie talked about a Native American worldview– an understanding of creation that is fundamentally different from the Judeo-Christian hierarchy, and a relationship between the United States and American Indians that is unique. All  Americans need to understand concepts of national sovereignty and treaty rights, she argued.  R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. said he felt lucky being able to go to the Dakotas to sit on the ground of his ancestors.

Teresa Ortiz said her work is also steeped in the stories and rhythms of indigenous and African ancestors while noting that Latino culture in Minnesota is always changing as new immigrants arrive.  As a Latina artist she needs to keep up with these new realities.  She  writes in both  Spanish and English “the languages of my ancestors and my children.”

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. invited the St. Paul Capital to paint him on their walls if they want to depict a Native American.

Real depictions are not monochromatic. It is the false imagines that strip diversity and the reality of change, even as they lie about the past. David Mura, Japanese poet and curator of the panel, wanted to know about the power of uncovering those lies. He asked a question dear to my heart:

If history is written by the victors, can we change the winner by changing the stories we tell about the past?