Letter from Berlin, the cool capital city of the Western country that arguably has the most brutal history of the Western world and is suddenly being hailed as the last bastion of liberal democracy. Ex-pat Laura Radosh will be writing for ROAR about what it’s like to watch from overseas as your country and your ideals go down the drain.
Gisela Schmitt*, who survived incarceration in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp near Berlin, felt like she never really understood what she had gone through until the mid-1980s when she visited Auschwitz with a group. On that trip, the guide, a psychologist, explained how the entire structure of the camps represented a concerted effort to break prisoners’ sense of self. In his work with survivors he had come to the conclusion that this happened not only because prisoners were humiliated, beaten, starved, and forced into slave labor 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, but because they had to watch this being done to others. Empathy is what makes us most human. When we see others suffer and do not intervene, we are robbed of our humanity. Gisela would of course have been killed had she tried to stop any of the atrocities she witnessed and, like almost all of us, her will to live was stronger than all else. But for fifty years after liberation, she—whose journey to the camps began with an attempt to save the life of a disabled child—had to live with the knowledge that she was not who she had thought she had been.
A loss of self is not a temporary state. For Gisela, it meant that in the early 1950s, when the man she loved died and she was left her alone and penniless with two small children, she was unable to insist to hospital directors, who believed she must have done something to end up in a concentration camp, that her lack of certificate was no fault of her own and she had, after all, almost finished her nursing training. Instead, she felt the only way she could support her family was to become a full-time “caretaker” for a man she hated, a job that did not come with a bed of her own. Her loss lived on in her daughter’s heroin addiction and her grandson’s criminality. When we are broken, we leave shards.
Obviously, in the first weeks of a proto-fascist presidency, we are neither in such a situation, nor are we necessarily headed that way. Still, I feel like we need Gisela’s story now to remind us of past, and therefore possible, destinations. We Jews in Germany are wary of glib Nazi comparisons. Mostly they serve to normalize the Holocaust, to use a word that’s enjoying increased popularity lately. As someone who’s spent decades working with survivors and Holocaust educators, I’ve always fought all relativization tooth and nail. Now I find myself regularly thinking things like “the first years in Germany were livable too” or “if everyone signs up on the Muslim registry, who will be left to hide people?” But perhaps it’s enough to destroy our sense of self if we simply allow the new callousness to become the norm.
The United States of America are not Weimar Republic Germany. We have a democracy that’s almost 250 years old (albeit one founded by white Christian men who practiced and propagated slavery and the attempted genocide of the native population). Not only are we a nation of immigrants, but, most importantly, the vast majority of us never question our diversity as Americans, a feat you perhaps can only appreciate when you’ve lived somewhere else, where national pride and identity is based strictly on ethnicity.
So I remain hopeful that the outpour of resistance to the ban and to the directive aimed at detaining and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants will nip these horrors in the bud. That for every Miami mayor who reneges on offering sanctuary, new mayors will step in. That protests continue to mirror intersectionality like never before. But when the made-up Bowling Green Massacre gets more attention than Customs and Border Patrol willfully ignoring court orders to let people into Los Angeles and Logan airports, I remain terrified that our country will be unrecognizable in a few years. After all, even if the acting president is impeached, we will still have a cabinet, and most likely a Supreme Court, that is more misogynist, racist, and anti-LGBTQI than our wildest nightmares. And we should not forget that we’ve made almost no ground in stemming the anti-science, pro-capitalist carnage embodied by the freeze of EPA funding and the removal of all information inimical to the administration from government websites. Our chances of mitigating climate change were always slim–we are going to have to be very creative if they’re not to become non-existent.
Perhaps our system of checks and balances will work and the judiciary will save the day. I’m more inclined to believe that we are looking at a near future in which the daily lives of so many will be even more difficult than they already were. Either way, we’ll all need to keep up the fight however we can, because when we can no longer help others in need, we risk losing not only our humanity, but our very selves.
In solidarity from Berlin,
Laura Radosh is a Brooklyn-bred, Berlin-based translator. Mostly she uses her words to channel social science and humanities research, though currently she’s working on a hard sci-fi novel. She’s delighted to use them here to hold high the banner of intersectional feminism.