History repeats itself: A Holocaust survivor reflects on the election – Forward

Posted By on October 21, 2020

Fear gripped me, as it did many Americans, on election night 2016. As I began to feel tightness in my throat and heaviness in my chest, memories of my adolescence in Nazi-occupied Hungary returned.

I dont recall any time in my life when I was not aware of antisemitism. I grew up in a village in northern Hungary where 40 Jewish families were socially and culturally separated from our peasant neighbors. By the time I was in high school, there was no expectation that I could attend university, as severe antisemitism had closed the doors of universities to Jews.

Antisemitism was not new to Hungary. Hungarian Jews had endured massacres and expulsions for centuries, interspersed with times when the impoverished nation welcomed Jews back to help the economy. Between 1848 and 1914, for example, Hungarian Jews established financial institutions and made noteworthy contributions to art, literature, medicine, and law.

During these fruitful periods of collaboration, the Jews were lulled into believing there was permanence in their new status. But in the anarchy and communist regime that followed World War I, Jews were targeted as scapegoats. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, Germanys military and cultural alliance with Hungary led to more vocal antisemitism and demands to eliminate Jews from civil service, the army and other professions.

During the ominous years of World War II, my parents struggled to maintain a semblance of normalcy at home even as every step we took was controlled by fear. Gone were the days when my mother would prepare the village children for our Hanukkah play. Instead, we spoke in hushed tones, silences interrupted by my fathers periodic sighs. My father and other heads of Jewish families were arrested and taken to jail on trumped-up charges. Young men were put into forced labor camps. My two older brothers did not survive the harsh conditions.

As the Germans suffered severe defeats on the Eastern front, Hungarian Jews clung to the hope that the war would end before things became worse. However, German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944 and swiftly followed by the deportation of the Jewish population from the countryside.

My mother and I were inmates in a concentration camp in Plaszow, near Krakow, as the war progressed without our awareness. Sometime in the early fall, they herded us into the cattle cars again, this time to Auschwitz. After some days there, we were moved for a long, cold winter in a labor camp in the Czech Republic. Our liberation came only on May 8, 1945 the last day of the war.

Now, 71 years after that liberation, the behavior of the president feels reminiscent of that time. From the beginning, there has been a search for scapegoats. In Europe of my youth, the Jews were the targets; in this country, Muslims and immigrants have taken that place and antisemitism has been reactivated. People fleeing from violence in their home countries are portrayed as murderers and criminals. The current anti-immigration rhetoric, fueled by deeply entrenched racial attitudes in this country, is reminiscent of the Nazis dependence on centuries-old antisemitism to ensure the passage of anti-Jewish legislation.

On the news, I saw a little girl from Honduras calling out a phone number her dad had given her in case of their separation. I was reminded of my childhood friend who carved into her memory the phone number of the bank where her father had deposited money for her in the hope that she would survive.

Children worry about their futures, asking: Why should I study for a future when I will not be here? Their anxiety brings me back to a conversation I had with a young boy as we were anticipating deportation. He asked, Do you think they will kill us? Without hesitation, I said, Yes. With the whole Jewish population of the village crowded into a few houses with inadequate sleeping arrangements and not enough food, there was no reason for us to think we had a future.

The United States has known many periods of high anxiety, including nuclear threats, active shooters, financial collapse, fire and floods and, now, a global pandemic. But past presidents have protected the population, while our current president enacts measures that primarily protect his personal safety and wealth without consideration of citizens. His self-centered attitude affects every aspect of his presidency, twisting issues that include climate change and gun safety, and politicizing scientific data to suit his needs.

Having the Holocaust in my past leads me to a heightened sensitivity to the present. I find that most people go about their daily business without focusing on climate change, gun control or what is happening on the Southern border. While the United States is divided between those who adopt the presidents vision and those who continue to adhere to the democratic principles of the Constitution and the rule of law, the reality is that many of us are shielded from the immediate consequences of the political situation.

For this very reason, we must become intentionally conscious of what is happening. While it is now others who are enduring hardships, eventually we all will be affected by the racist, divisive, long-term effects of a chaotic and poorly functioning administration. This is the time, for us as individuals, as a nation, and most of all, as Jews, to uphold the democratic principles our country was founded on, principles for which many have given their lives.

Dr. Anna Ornstein, an Auschwitz survivor, is a renowned psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, author, speaker, and scholar. A longer version of this article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of the Bulletin of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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History repeats itself: A Holocaust survivor reflects on the election - Forward

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