Arts & Culture

Jews Have Disappeared into a Malady of Silence and Surnames

One day I just happened to drop by Auschwitz for the afternoon.   Just like in the movies…the claustrophobic gas chamber, the metal sliding trays used to shove bodies into the ovens as well as a kind of stench that … Read More

By / September 8, 2008

One day I just happened to drop by Auschwitz for the afternoon.   Just like in the movies…the claustrophobic gas chamber, the metal sliding trays used to shove bodies into the ovens as well as a kind of stench that hung over the place.  It was all clearly labeled, sanitized and free from any emotion.  Strangely, none of this had much impact on me.

As I continued to tour the “museum” (as they call it) I walked into what looked like a bunker.  In the corner I saw a stack of grey blankets which I assumed were used by the prisoners.  I asked one of the guards about them.  I was told that they were made from the prisoners.  Pause.  I am now paralyzed.  This pile of blankets was made from human sheep, Jewish sheep.  That’s when the horrors of lamp shades from skin and medical experiments filled my mind.  For me, Auschwitz was not about the mass killing–that’s too abstract a thought for me to fully digest–but it was about the one-on-one inhumanity, the daily interaction between one person and another.  How do you look at a man, woman or child and see them only as a blanket or a conical lampshade that emits a certain type of filtered light?  It is this thought that has stayed with me for twenty years since that visit. On the train back to Lodz, I wondered why people hate us so much, since the very beginning.  Has there ever been a day in Jewish history where we have not been hated?  

Every group seems to get their turn on the wheel of hate but we seem to get our turn more often than others.
Because my father was dubbed “Smith” when he landed at Ellis Island at the turn of the last century, I have had a bit of a unique vantage point.  I’m kind of an invisible Jew.  Because my last name is not Bernstein or Rosenblatt, people feel a bit freer to unload their casual “Jew” remarks in front of me.  Growing up in the segregated South, I heard it a lot but surprisingly, just as much today.  I don’t know if this dislike for Jews is cultural, genetic or what.  And, in some ways, I think modern American Jews have internalized these ideas and therefore rushed to become mainstream and abandon their uniqueness, their religion.  I don’t have the numbers or the evidence, but I would bet that the vast majority of American Jews do not know much about their religion beyond Hanukkah and Yom Kippur with little interest in either. 

As a Chinese woman said to me years ago, “You Jewish people are crazy.  You come to this country and change your name.  We Chinese would never do that.  That is our family, our history.”  May I say that this woman makes a major point, as I am still not sure of my real name nor the real history of my family.  What does that do to a person, to make them history-less?  Once you push the “erase” button it is nearly impossible to reconstruct the missing data.  As American Jews, we are missing mountains of data. What’s interesting to me, is that if you want to talk about minorities, what are we, chopped liver?   We are THE microscopic minority.  Well, Jains and Zoroastrians are probably pretty small too.  In a way, I am grateful for Madonna and the far right in that both are raising the profile of Judaism beyond moneychangers, owners of the media, controllers of Hollywood and just plain dirty people.  For Madonna and the ultra right, Jews have something to tell the world, something rich and textured, something to be embraced not scorned.   So many Jews who immigrated to this country dumped their religion wholesale when they landed in this beautiful country of opportunity.  The only thing they passed on to their children was that it was OK to have a Christmas tree and the love of bagels. I fully understand that they wanted a break with the ugly past and looked forward to reinventing themselves free from persecution and hatred.  Who wants to live like that?   All this rambling leads to the point that sites like JEWCY are important.  It opens up the dialogue, raises the profile and encourages people to think, talk and embrace who they are.  Without this conversation, no group can survive.  With silence we disappear.  Keep talking.

Philip Smith, author of Walking Through Walls, is guest blogging for Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.

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