I open the china cabinet, carefully placing the candlesticks back on the shelf next to the pile of papers resting on dessert plates. The edges of the paper flutter and are tucked back in before the glass door closes. All other important documents reside in basement file folders, carefully labeled amongst birth records, insurance information, report cards from 1995 and pretty much every non-digital documentation we have collected over the years. These few papers, however, are always within sight and reach. They’re an emergency lifeboat, but also a white flag.
My husband grew up in the States, but due to circumstances of birth has both British and American citizenship. He often takes his British passport when traveling, regardless of questions he receives at customs and immigration due to his Red Sox hat and pronunciation of “aluminum.” A couple of years ago, we looked into getting duel citizenship for our children. It’s a convoluted process that involves completing piles of paperwork, lining up—sorry, queuing—at the embassy downtown, and probably being interviewed under a blazing yellow spotlight while shvitzing puddles in an iron chair. For now, we’ve decided not to bother. But in our cabinet, behind the glass, we have the paperwork needed if we ever decide to jump ship.
Before having my own kiddos, I taught high-schoolers using themes and subject material from Facing History and Ourselves. Terms like bystander, rescuer, tolerance and justice were integrated into the daily discussion just as often as kids asking for hall passes. When teaching about Weimar, Germany, and the events leading up to the Holocaust, I would always get the same question: “Why didn’t Jewish people just leave?” The answer, as we know, is complex. Between money and papers needed to emigrate and immigration restrictions due to rampant anti-Semitism—ahem, the St. Louis—many Jews could not leave. As for those lucky enough to do so, leaving meant abandoning their homes, family and friends, businesses and financial stability to relocate to a place with a new language, culture and few (if any) connections. While papers may have been a lifeboat from persecution in Germany, they did not guarantee reprieve once docked at a new harbor. And let’s not forget that the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler and Nazism was a process. As bad as things were in the ’30s, nobody could have predicted that this modern, recently democratic state could (within a few short years) become the epicenter of mass genocide.
Which brings me to now. As I sit in a plush (albeit IKEA) chair, and scroll through today’s news, anxiety builds. Perhaps it’s my neuroticism or just too much binge-watching “The Man in the High Castle,” but I can’t help wondering, how bad will it get, here in the United States? For those who left Germany in the 1930s, what was their tipping point?
There will always be people and fringe groups shouting incendiary bull*&%$. But, as we know from the past, it is the bystanders whose silent complacency condones such rhetoric and allows hatred to propagate. Regardless of leader, it is the (plural) leadership whose Three Wise Monkeys act has the greatest impact on the current level of xenophobic discourse. And it is this same intolerance that punches me in the gut when, on a shopping trip to the Natick Trader Joe’s this past spring, I saw a white SUV with a spray-painted swastika. And it is the heart-wrenching conversation I have to have with my kindergartner when a friend on the bus tells her about “a man a long time ago who killed everyone who didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes,” and I have to assure her that she is safe and nothing like that would ever happen today.
About this time two years ago, right after the massive rift in November, I started casually searching properties in England, just for curiosity’s sake. OK, so I even went as far as calling Chabad of UK to see where British Jews tend to congregate. (Come on, I wouldn’t want to look for houses where I would be the only member of the Tribe!) The reality, of course, is that we will probably never move. We live in a lovely house in a beautiful neighborhood, and are surrounded by friends and family whom we would never want to be far from. Our lives are here; this is our home. Our lifeboat is prepared for boarding, but we are not yet ready to jump ship.
I take a deep breath and grab a cup from the cabinet to pour some chamomile tea. I close the glass door, carefully tucking the papers back upon the dessert plates. Just in case.
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