Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer who writes on Cuba, American popular culture, identity and higher education. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I loved my maternal grandmother fiercely. When my daughter was born this year, I gave her the middle name “Hilda,” my grandma’s given name, although my whole family called her “Tutu.”
My grandparents fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and their first stop in the US was Honolulu, where they lived for three years until Pearl Harbor. Even after they moved to the mainland, they continued a lifelong love affair with Hawaii, which is why my grandma adopted the Hawaiian term “Tutu” when her first grandchild (me) was born. Although “Tutu” is not the traditional name for grandma in the Hawaiian language, it’s used commonly: in fact, Barack Obama also referred to his maternal grandma as “Tutu.” It’s not hard to imagine why my grandparents opted not to be called by the corresponding German terms, “oma” and “opa.”
Tutu always spoke with great love and respect for the US, feeling that the country had given her and Poppa (what we called my grandpa) refuge from the Nazis. Perhaps she was not aware of or chose to ignore the fact that the US also turned away thousands of Jews.
Tutu and I often disagreed about the moral righteousness of the US, particularly because my mom was an activist and scholar deeply involved in organizing against interventions into Central America in the 1970s and 1980s – actions that helped produce the instability and gang violence that has provoked mass migration and crisis conditions visible today. Raised with this knowledge, I never felt, as Tutu did, that the US was basically a force for good in the world, but I deeply understood why she felt that way.
My family was never very observant in our practice of Judaism. German Jews were largely more secular than their eastern European counterparts because many had become – like both sides of my family (all four grandparents were German Jewish) – well integrated into German society and economically successful. And this was precisely why so many German Jews stayed until it was too late: Germany had been their home for generations and few imagined that something like the Holocaust was possible, that their neighbors could become complicit in Hitler’s genocide.
And this is perhaps the most important lesson Tutu taught me about Nazi Germany: how gradually Jews’ rights were taken away. The Holocaust didn’t happen overnight; there was a years-long buildup to the “final solution.” Tutu and Poppa fled Germany in May 1938, already quite late; in October 1938, German Jews’ passports were invalidated and they were ordered to turn them in to have a “J” stamped on them.
Miraculously, even with a marked passport, Tutu’s mother escaped Germany in August 1939. Her husband never made it out. He wasn’t sent to the camps; he had already committed suicide in 1936 after his importing business was taken away from him. Although I can never know whether he also suffered from depression (Tutu was very hesitant to speak about her father’s death for most of her life), it seems clear that he was a casualty of the more gradual, insidious anti-Semitic laws stripping Jews of full equality.
Poppa’s father, also an entrepreneur who lost his business to anti-Jewish laws, was sent to the Treblinka extermination camp because the boat he was supposed to leave on was postponed. He died there in 1942. My paternal grandparents fared better, as all four of their parents fled Germany early, but dozens of their other relatives perished in concentration camps.
It’s easy to blame the Holocaust on one evil man, but it was enabled by regular Germans who allowed themselves to be swayed by racist nationalism. Early on in Donald Trump’s presidency when discussing the use of chemical weapons in Syria, his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, uttered a bold-faced untruth – that Hitler never gassed his own people – thus erasing the genocide of German Jews by their leader.
While unusually offensive, it was only one in a string of Holocaust denial and soft-pedaling statements by the Trump White House. Trump’s administration was initially advised by Steve Bannon, who has been linked to anti-Semitic statements and told a far-right gathering in France that they should take accusations of racism as a point of pride.
After Spicer’s comments about Hitler, I recalled Tutu’s stories about how the gradual stripping away of civil rights can eventually lead to genocide or mass internment, and had no doubt that a repeat of the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans was possible under this administration. No less than former first lady Laura Bush characterized the heartless separation of undocumented migrants from their children this past summer as internment.
Then, just over a year ago at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, neo-Nazis shouted, “Jews will not replace us!”; Trump famously referred to some of them as “very fine people.” Now, in the past week, we have witnessed a bone-chilling act of anti-Semitic terrorism (the deadliest in US history) at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Mail bombs were sent not only to leaders of the Democratic Party, but to George Soros, a figure whose name Trump and the right have utilized as an anti-Semitic dog-whistle.
Trump has referred to himself as a “nationalist,” contrasting himself with the “globalist” Soros. As Talia Lavin explains, the term “globalist” has historically been used to perpetuate the lie that Jews aim to take over the world and have been the puppet-masters of various civil rights movements by people of color; one can hardly imagine a notion more simultaneously anti-Semitic and racist.
Now that we have witnessed the killing of 11 Jews in their place of worship – which ultimately must be linked to other mass murders by male white supremacists like Dylann Roof, Elliott Rodger, and Timothy McVeigh – there is no question in my mind that, despite the fact that many Jews (at least those who are not people of color) benefit from white privilege, we are still different and face the threat of being targets of race-based terrorism.
Despite Trump allies insisting that his words aren’t an incitement to violence, it’s willful ignorance not to connect the dots and see how they are correlated with a surge in anti-Semitism since he took office. Trump and other Republicans have accused Soros of fomenting social unrest by funding the migrant caravan. The Pittsburgh shooter blamed Jews – particularly HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), an organization that has historically aided refugees fleeing violence – for the Central American migrant caravan.
As Atlantic writer Adam Serwer states, “The shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews.”
Although I miss Tutu almost every day, I’m happy she’s no longer alive. I wouldn’t want her to live through this shameful moment in our history, because I know her heart would have broken to see her adopted country turn into a version of the Germany she fled in 1938. At family gatherings she would often repeat the mantra, “Hitler didn’t get us all,” meaning the best revenge was Jews surviving the Holocaust and passing on our culture to younger generations.
If she were alive, I wonder if she might rethink that statement. The Trump administration has fanned the flames of racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism while Congress has abhorrently refused to enact gun control legislation. And now Jews have been massacred in Pittsburgh.
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If she were alive, maybe Tutu would no longer feel secure that Nazi ideology died along with Hitler. Perhaps she would even look more kindly upon her native country – which ultimately paid for much of her and Poppa’s health and elder care expenses via reparations to German Jewish exiles and which is widely recognized as having taken major steps to atone for its sins. Beyond reparations for exiles themselves, Germany also passed a law allowing grandchildren of exiles who showed proof of their grandparents’ status (i.e. a Nazi passport) to apply for citizenship, a law I took advantage of about 15 years ago.
Regardless of whether I ever decide to use my German citizenship, after this massacre I wonder if Tutu would still see the US as the best country in the world.