Let me, for one instant, take the spotlight off Michael Jackson and shine it on another black man whose life was also cut short this summer: Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39.
Remember him? The security guard who took a white supremacist’s bullet at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum on June 10, 2009. It’s iconic: The tapestry of Black, White, and Jewish America sewn together with the thread of a bullet. I heard the definition of America in the crack of that rifle shot.
And lately, I worry that I will hear it again as simmering hatred for our first Black president, because he is half-Black, reveals itself in the form of lobotomized shouting and loaded guns at “Town Hall” meetings and in right-wing boycotts of President Obama’s scheduled speeches at our nation’s public schools. These bully tactics have zero to do with issues and everything to do with hatred. Hatred: I know from hatred. It has a singular smell and taste one is not likely ever to forget. I learned the definition of that word on 9/11.
I pull a book out of its home on my shelf. “Seven times cursed and seven times sealed.” For seven years I taught Elie Wiesel’s searing memoir of the Holocaust, “Night.” Seven years multiplied by two semesters equals 14 times. It was the most important book I taught at the University of Pennsylvania. But teaching that memoir finally hit me like a truncheon and I could not teach it any longer. Did I want to give myself a nervous breakdown?
I realized that Elie Wiesel never had the choice of opting out of the Holocaust when the experience became overwhelming. So how could I replace my class “Writing as Journey” with “Writing as an Extreme Sport?” Self-preservation made the decision. I needed a break from those two weeks, each semester, when, teaching “Night,” I could neither eat nor sleep. And if I did sleep, real ghosts marched, frozen and starving, through my dreams.
I never believed in the phenomena of repressed memory until I taught “Night” for the 10th time. One dawn I jolted awake in a panic shaken by images from a Holocaust film I’d seen in an undergrad Political Science class some 20 years earlier. The grainy, black and white, 35 mm film that someone had taken to record the diurnal routine of a death camp was more harrowing than anything Spielberg has ever served up. A female guard trudged through thick, congealed mud carrying buckets full of severed heads as though she was carrying ordinary globes of cabbage. That was the image that required forgetting.
I often wonder how many of my students will need to forget “Night” just so they can function. I wonder how many will remember “Night” when they reach positions of authority; and how many, remembering “Night,” will make moral decisions based upon that book that might prevent or stanch the blood of a holocaust from flowing here, in America, or in some dark, unnoticed corner of the earth.
I required each of my students to give a 10-minute presentation on a “pivotal” aspect of one of the books we’d read during the semester. I was often dazzled by the detail and insight my UPenn kids cleverly unveiled. But one kid finally did the impossible: He braved a presentation on Mengele’s experiments.
Elie Wiesel had met Mengele briefly in Buchenwald. The key word here is “briefly.” The student was careful to list the names and ages of Mengele’s victims. He meticulously exposed each nauseating detail of each experiment until the words “experiment” and “torture” became synonymous; yet there was nothing prurient or lurid about this student’s presentation. He calmly, methodically spoke the facts. True: about half-way through his speech, students bolted from the classroom one by one grasping their stomachs and mouths. I don’t normally give “A+”s for presentations that make the rest of the class throw up. This time, I made an exception.
The first time I read “Night” my then 4-year-old daughter and I were visiting my parents’ unheated cabin in Northern Wisconsin. It was a freezing July night: So cold I had to move my child and me out from one of the bedrooms into the living room near the fireplace for warmth. As she slept I stayed awake because each hour I had to chuck more logs and kindling into the hand-built stone fireplace just to keep the fire alive. How much wood can a single mom chuck? Quite a lot actually.
Then I picked up Wiesel’s book “Night” where my mother had strategically placed it, and thought: ‘I should read this; my daughter is, after all, half-Jewish, and, anyway, it’s a short book.’ I thought I knew enough about the Holocaust. In my early 20s I’d lived in the Netherlands and worked as a painfully amateur cook/social worker in a youth hostel in Amsterdam. I wonder how many white supremacists have lived in Europe, you know, besides the actual Nazis in the 1930-40s. Because the Holocaust clings to beads of fog like nitrogen in the air. One cannot avoid breathing it in.
The address of my youth hostel was 21-24 Barndesteeg, Nieuwekerk; which meant it was just around the corner from Rembrandt’s house and Jodenbreestraat; hence, just around the canal from the train station where Nazis herded Holland’s Jewish population, like cargo, to be shipped to death camps. Of Holland’s 400,000, only about 6,000 remain today. Some mornings, walking through the gelid fog near the train station, I swear, for an instant, I could see them. Of all the streets in Amsterdam, Jodenbreestraat was eerily silent. I also visited Anne Frank’s hiding place for no other shallow reason than we share the same birthday, June 12. I entered the bell-gabled house on Prinsengracht as a tourist; I exited that house as a citizen of the world.
Amsterdam was saturated with the Holocaust, but it was also a testament to the vibrancy, freedom, artistry, and prosperity of a culture that once was. It was home to my favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, whose elegant statement got him excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish community: “We see God in nature.” Amsterdam was the only place in the world where Spinoza, a lens-grinder for Leeuwenhoek (probably: They lived 4 miles apart in 1665), could publish his ingenious thoughts. Amsterdam was the only place in Europe where Spanish Jews could escape the Spanish Inquisition via Portugal, circa 1536. The Portuguese-Jewish Synagogue, which miraculously survived the Nazi occupation, was the size of a modern sports arena, but resplendent with brindled wooden benches that had been imported from Brazil.
In 1639, Jews were safe in the Netherlands; trees were safe in the Amazon.
Little did I know back then that one day I would have a child who is one-half Sephardic Jew. It made sense: Her charming father worked the same magic I’d felt so strongly in the Netherlands. I didn’t give much thought to anti-Semitism before 9/11. I thought it was something that happened in Europe over a half-century ago. I thought it was ancient history. There was one time when I dropped my daughter off at a new daycare, and the “caregiver” asked: “Is your daughter a Jew?” And I replied: “Are you a bigot? Because I’m English, Irish, and American-Indian. And lady, you do not want to mess with my kid.” Before 9/11, friends sometimes had to remind me that I’m only 5’2” and about a hundred pounds with my shoes on.
Before 9/11, I called my daughter “my little Spaniard” or “my small Algerian child.” After 9/11, anti-Semitism changed the color of the sky. It got personal. After 9/11 my daughter watched her unshakably confident, always affable, eternal optimist of a mother grow into someone who had to struggle, daily, with tears or rage. I could not begin to explain to my 4-year-old that here, suddenly, we stood at an historic intersection where all the world hated her for no other reason than she was my beloved Jewish child; and because of this, I suddenly hated all the world. That date changed my dreams of war from easy escape in a fighter jet to a cavernous building where I was powerless as Nazis struggled to separate me from my daughter. It changed the smell of my dreams from airplane fuel and coconut tanning oil to musty stacks of rare, illuminated books that blistered my fingers as I yanked them from fire.
Which brings me back to Elie Wiesel’s memoir and that freezing July night in Wisconsin when I read his book for the first time. It was not lost on me that we had a comfortable sleeper-sofa; a fire for warmth; shelter from cold; and apple fritters in the pantry. By the time I read the last page of “Night,” the Wisconsin sun lit up the lake. Each moist needle on the pine trees pointed to the mirror-smooth water. Here were instructions on how to survive a holocaust, The Holocaust, with one’s humanity and love in tact. Here was the most confounding peace.
I never dreamed that Elie Wiesel would outlive Michael Jackson: Indeed, I never thought of them in the same sentence, let alone the same orbit. I was wrong. Elie Wiesel is right. What have we learned from the Holocaust? His recent answer — his eternal answer: “Nothing. We have learned nothing.” True. Suddenly it is not safe to take my now 12-year-old daughter to a Holocaust Museum in America. Even as I write this essay, children in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being sold to Al-Qaeda to be sacrificed as suicide bombers; while here in Florida, and across the U.S., white supremacist militias have grown in members and materiel. Our President’s speeches to our school children are being screened and boycotted. So I reach for Elie Wiesel’s instructions, and know it’s time to teach his book again. I look at my face in the mirror. I hold his words in my hands. And I say to Eliezer Wiesel: “You and I must make a pact. We must bring salvation back. Where there is love, I’ll be there.”
Pamela Sutton is taking time off from teaching Writing at the University of Pennsylvania to finish writing her first novel, Tamer of Horses, and two more books of Poetry. The first chapter of her novel is forthcoming from Glimmer Train Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous Literary journals and anthologies, including Scribner’s anthology The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Best American Poetry 2009, forthcoming. She is Contributing Editor for The American Poetry Review.