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by Renate Justin, M.D.
WHAT WOULD my life have been like if I had not been born into a Jewish family in Nazi Germany; if I had not experienced anti-Semitism? What if I had been born into an Aryan family, joined the Hitler youth, become a Nazi who participated in the killing of “undesirable” children? This scenario was obviously not a choice available to me, but one that I have pondered.
Since my 7th birthday, anti-Semitism has been my constant companion. My birthday party, in 1933, was to be in a restaurant located in the woods that surrounded the village where my family lived, in the Harz Mountains in Germany. When my father went to make the reservations for the party he noticed a large, new sign on the fence surrounding the outdoor café: ‘Juden nicht erlaubt’, (Jews not permitted). He had to cancel the plans for my celebration. I was crestfallen, shed tears. It was the first time that I became painfully aware of anti-Semitism.
I questioned my father: “Why can’t we go to our favorite place in the woods?” He answered in a serious, sad tone: “The owner won’t allow Jews to have birthday parties there any more.”
“But why not?”
His answer, “I don’t know,” was the answer I received many times as I grew up, and was the same answer I gave to my children and grandchildren when they asked, “Why not?”
Shortly after that first sign was posted, cancelling my birthday party at the restaurant, similar signs appeared at the pond where my family used to go swimming and skating, at the bandstand in the village square, at the railroad station and other places we frequently visited. The Nazis justified their military invasion of European countries because the German people needed more Lebensraum (living space). Anti-Semitism started to draw a tight cordon around the space that we, as Jews, occupied, constricting our Lebensraum.
As an 8-year-old child in Germany, I did not incorporate the characteristics attributed to Jews by the Nazis. Why did I not feel like scum, minderwertig, not worthy of the respect tendered to other human beings? Every day I was exposed to the Nazi rhetoric and the consequences of that rhetoric. On my way to and from school I had to cross a bridge. On one end of that bridge a display case was erected and behind glass the newspaper, Der Stürmer, was posted, with its caricatures of big-nosed Jews accused of low-down, mean behavior and crimes, of being intrinsically evil beings. A group of teenage boys hung around this display and jeered at my sisters and me as we passed, emphasizing their disdain with well-aimed stones.
MORE PAINFUL and puzzling was our friends’ desertion. “We can’t play or speak with you anymore because you are Jewish,” we were told one day on our way to school. From that day on, our classmates, our friends, would not allow us to play tag in the schoolyard during recess with them, nor would they come to our garden any longer to use our swing or have a tea party with our dolls. Parents, afraid of retribution by the Nazi party, forbade their children to talk to their Jewish friends. Then my teacher donned the brown Nazi uniform and boots and ceased to greet me or call on me in class. I became invisible to him and to my friends.
Why was I not convinced that I was detestable?
Our Hebrew teacher, Herr Jaffe, helped me to maintain my self-respect. He explained to my sisters and me what was meant in the Old Testament by the statement that the Jews were God’s chosen people: “God chose the Jews to be cultural ambassadors. When they were expelled from one area of the world and fled to another they were to bring with them, to where ever they settled, the best music, poetry, art, and literature of the place from which they came, whether that place was Egypt during Pharaoh’s time, Spain during the Inquisition, or Germany during the Hitler regime.”
While the Nazis burned books and killed artists, our teacher told us, we were chosen to be preservers of beauty and wisdom. I believed him, when I was a child, and this belief helped me to maintain some self-respect while I was exposed to name-calling and degradation. With this story, Herr Jaffe made us missionaries instead of victims. As the Nazis went about destroying paintings and sculpture, censoring music and dance, I felt empowered to bring what I knew to wherever I was going to end up — a helpful interpretation of a biblical mystery.
MY OLDER SISTER, then perhaps 11 or 12, came home from school one day and noticed a new bulletin board posted by the Party in the driveway of our factory. She was puzzled and was quietly talking to herself, trying to guess what the letters at the top of the board meant: DAF, Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German worker’s front). Standing in front of the board with her school satchel on her back, she whispered, “DAF German monkey folk?”
One of my father’s employees, who had joined the Nazi party, overheard her and reported her childish remarks to the local party headquarters. She and my father were threatened with imprisonment if my sister did not leave Germany in twenty-four hours. My parents were desperate, but located a boarding school in the Italian Alps, which was willing to accept their oldest daughter. This sudden departure of my sister left me afraid. I worried constantly that I would have to leave my parents, that I also would be sent off to another country. I missed my sister, and stopped talking for fear that someone would report me for something I might say. In spite of my silence, my attempt not to be noticed, I was dismissed from school, forbidden to attend, because of my religion.
In 1936, when I was 9, lonely and isolated from my peers, I had to leave Germany, my home and my family. My parents sent me to Holland to a Quaker boarding school. I have not forgotten the evening I left my mother and father standing on a cold, windy station platform. Alone at the window, as the train pulled away, I watched my parents as they waved, with tears running down their faces. I fought desperately to control my sobs; I would be in danger if I drew the attention of the Nazi in my compartment to myself.
The next three years were a time of healing. Political and religious refugees were welcomed at the Quaker school in Holland, and there formed a community of tolerance. Both faculty and students experienced continuing trauma as mothers, fathers and friends were incarcerated in the concentration camps and murdered, but we supported each other, wept and mourned together. Once again, while my father was incarcerated in Buchenwald after Kristallnakht, I prayed earnestly and searched, without success, for an answer to the question, “Why this hatred?”
A few months before the Germans invaded Holland, I left for the United States. The school community was destroyed by the invaders and the remaining faculty and students, my friends and classmates, were sent to the gas chambers.
NAIVELY I THOUGHT that I had left anti-Semitism behind when I arrived as a young teenager in the United States, a democracy. It was a great disappointment to me that in Massachusetts, in the 1940s, my family, as Jews, could not rent an apartment. Many hotels did not accept Jews, nor did golf courses, or country clubs. The signs in Boston read “Churches nearby,” not “Jews not permitted,” but the meaning was the same: you cannot have your birthday party at this hotel because you are Jewish.
Even more distressing was the quota system that existed at universities, allowing only a limited number of women, Jews or other minorities to attend. My teachers and advisors discouraged me from applying to college or medical school, predicting that as a penniless Jewish woman I would not get in anywhere. When I did arrive at college, as a first-year student, I heard the echo of our German schoolmates, “We no longer will play with Jews,” as my future roommate stated, “There is no way I will room with a Jew.” I learned, then, that it is almost impossible to persuade someone to let go of a preconceived conviction, because prejudice is not based on reason. Once I had accepted this, I stopped the discussion, and moved to a different dormitory.
When I graduated from medical school in early 1950, I interviewed for my first job. My future colleague told me that I should not expect any social life in the small midwestern community where I was hoping to practice, because “Jews are not welcome here.” “Furthermore,” he said, “don’t expect to join the country club.” I did not play golf, did not intend to join the country club, but I also did not expect that the neighbor’s boy would use his BB gun on my son and tell him, “Too bad Hitler didn’t get you.” My son had wanted to kick a ball with the neighbor boy and was completely taken aback, not only by the pain the BB gun caused, but also by the words accompanying the shots.
I found it extremely difficult to explain anti-Semitism to my young son; to teach him that all his life he would be injured by people who dislike Jews. Intelligent, educated, even loving people would exclude him from discourse because he happened to be born Jewish. Those were the facts; the reasons that motivated that behavior were even more difficult to explain. I resorted, as my father did, to “I don’t know.”
AS I GREW OLDER, I began to understand that prejudice is an innate part of the human condition. Human beings are afraid of those that are different from ourselves in belief, appearance, behavior or other characteristics. We are quick to judge and make decisions on first impressions. Because we have difficulty trusting strangers, or those who are different from ourselves, we exclude them, or even persecute them. Once fear, distrust and hatred of a certain group, or of an individual, has been established in our psyche, it is very difficult to change or eradicate. This was brought home to me when I was on the board of a cooperative housing unit in New York, which was almost entirely occupied by Jews. It was decided at a board meeting that African-American applicants for housing would automatically be placed at the bottom of the waiting list, thereby excluding them from ever living with us. My impassioned plea not to impose the same pain on our fellow citizens that Hitler had imposed on European Jews fell on deaf ears. No person of color lived in those apartments while I was in residence. Prejudice is ubiquitous, and having been the victims of this plague does not make us more open-minded.
The litany of anti-Semitic remarks never stops. A third grader, who was in my care, came home from school and asked, “Did you know that all Jews are really mean?” To hear this from someone so young made me distraught and made me question whether we can teach respect and acceptance of racial, social and cultural differences in our schools. I belonged to the Big Sister organization and my Little Sister, who was in junior high school, told me that at school everyone knew that the Jews blew up the space shuttle Challenger. When my oldest granddaughter came home from school crying, it was a déjà vu for me; her classmates had harassed her because she was Jewish. I contacted her teacher and was told, “These things happen. As her teacher there is nothing I can do to stop them.” To see my granddaughter suffer the same exclusion I experienced as a youngster her age, when my friends ostracized me because I was Jewish, reawakened the pain and loneliness of my childhood. During my adult years I have been talking in schools and universities about my history, tolerance and bullying. My granddaughter’s experience, and her teacher’s response, caused me to question whether my efforts influenced my audiences.
A GERMAN immigrant, a woman who made no secret of her Nazi beliefs, came to my medical office as a patient. I felt impelled to tell her that I was a Jew, something I had never discussed with any other patient. Because of her strong hatred of Jews, the lady decided she could not continue to be a member of my practice. I was relieved by her decision. I knew I could be a competent physician for her, but I worried whether I could be a compassionate physician for her. The encounter encouraged me to examine my own preconceived ideas, especially as related to the practice of medicine. My own first impressions, I found, were often mistaken. The disheveled, smelly young man who lived under a bridge was not homeless, as I had assumed, but the son of two local university professors. My sense that young women who had developed breast cancer would mourn losing a breast more than would old women was based on a mistaken concept of aging. I was horrified when a colleague said about a middle-aged woman with severe chest pain, “She does not need to go to the emergency room; she is just hysterical, like all Jews.” I tried to be more aware of my pre-judgments, especially in my office.
Anti-Semitism has made me wary when I meet a stranger. My accent immediately reveals that I was not born in this country. Because of that the questions follow: “Where were you born?” “Why did your family leave Germany?” “Have you been back to visit?” These are well-meant, friendly questions, but I do not feel comfortable revealing my religion and my childhood experiences to strangers, because I do not know how they will react once they learn that I am Jewish. I am uncomfortable when I meet German war brides and others who lived in Germany during the Holocaust and then came to the United States. I fear they might share the beliefs of my German Nazi patient.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, my granddaughter was murdered by a young man, who, according to his diaries, hated Jews and felt impelled and justified to kill Jewish college students. He killed my granddaughter because she was a beautiful, talented, Jewish college student. At that time all Jewish students from the university in Connecticut, where this crime took place, were sent home for fear that they also were in danger of violence. Many friends and strangers expressed their sorrow to our family that anti-Semitism still existed in this country and had taken yet another life.
Since that time, others, not only in this country, but in Paris and Toulouse France, Argentina, in a Jewish museum in Belgium and elsewhere, have been killed because they were Jewish.
I no longer believe that we, as Jews, are chosen as ambassadors, as Mr. Jaffe, my Hebrew teacher, taught me. I no longer believe in God, I no longer pray. I found it difficult to accept the condolences of friends who said “It was God’s will” that my granddaughter was murdered. Now I realize that all of us carry prejudice and that anti-Semitism is only one of many varieties of persecution. I rarely try to reverse someone’s negative view of Jews, but still try to light a passion for justice in the young and combat injustice no matter at whom it is directed.
Anti-Semitism is an ancient blight, rampant the world over, and probably will always exist. It is difficult to imagine a life, a world, free of anti-Semitism. It is a scourge that varies in intensity, and which we can try to contain, even ameliorate, but that has a seemingly endless life of its own — a fact that a Jew has to acknowledge, accept, and learn to tolerate.
I prefer living out my life with wounds inflicted by anti-Semitism, and with daily reminders of negative attitudes towards Jews, to being a Nazi. I am grateful that I, serendipitously, was born into a German Jewish family during the Holocaust rather than into a pure Aryan family that adopted the Nazi violence. Having had no choice in the matter, I lucked out.
Renate G. Justin is a retired family physician who received a prize from both the Canadian and United States Academy of Family Physicians for her publications and research on end-of-life issues. She has published numerous articles in the lay and professional press. Several of her essays are included in anthologies. Her e-book, The Last Time I Felt Safe, deals with her experiences as a child in Nazi Germany.