Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nazis, Arizona and the Power of the Printed Word

Growing up in 1960’s suburban California, where everything was bright, sunny and new, I could not comprehend Nazi Germany. Watching the TV news in elementary school I saw student riots at Berkeley and Kent state; Stokley Carmichel, Angela Davis and other Black Panthers clad in leather standing on the steps of the Oakland City Hall; rock concerts; and Moratoriums for Peace. I didn’t understand much of it, but there seemed to be a general sense of empowerment – demand what you want, stand up for your rights.

Fast forward to the summer when I was 17. Craving a great tan AND intellectual stimulation, I spent my afternoons laying on a lounge in the backyard reading all of the WWII books by Leon Uris. Beginning with Exodus, I then raced through Mila 18 (Warsaw Ghetto), Battle Cry (Marines in the Pacific Islands), Armageddon (Berlin after the war), and QB VII (fictional libel lawsuit similar to real-life suit against Uris). At dinner each night I would badger my parents (who themselves had been teenagers during WWII) with question after question. “How could the people of Germany (Poland, Austria) let this happen?! Why didn’t the United States DO something? How could no one know?” At 17 things are black & white; I was incensed - how could this have happened???

Years later I found Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi.
I finally began to comprehend the slow and insidious way the Nazis wormed their way into German society. What I remember most about the book is how they started with the re-education of the children, who then were rewarded and praised for turning in adults who were Jews, or spoke poorly of the Fuhrer. It was stunning, and terrifying. But I was still pissed off and wholly uncompassionate regarding German citizens.

Last night I finished Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.
It was magnificent. It deals with soul-shredding shame, with choices that no one should ever have to make, with the everyday gnawing hunger that all Germans (with the exception on Nazi officers) faced as the war went on, anti-Semitism, brutal cruelty, bravery, and lives totally ruined. I don’t want to write about the plot at all, because the way it unfolds is marvelous. Do not read the back cover, or any spoiler reviews. Just get the book, and read it.

What does this have to do with living in an eco-village? I’m not quite sure. But I think that the more understanding I have of people in difficult situations the more compassionate I will be. I tend towards judgment, and personal bias, and often forget that people are individuals and not just cogs in a big wheel. It also makes me think of what is happening in Arizona lately, where the police now have to freedom to stop anyone who looks Hispanic and demand papers. I find this exceedingly odd in a country made up largely of immigrants.

What is wrong with this picture? How about "My family and I are here, so now let's close the door"?

While I hesitate to make comparisons to Nazi Germany, the fear and the hatred sure seem similar. It is not a direction I want our country to go in. And yet, NPR says that while many folks are boycotting Arizona, “…the immigration legislation cuts both ways. A recent Gallup Poll shows most Americans are in favor of it. And ever since the governor signed the bill, supporters from other states have written to local news agencies to say they're considering a move to Arizona.”

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