On a sunny Warsaw day last month, crowds cheered soldiers wielding machine guns and bayonets. Children waved red-and-white flags at tanks barreling down wide avenues. It was Armed Forces Day in Poland’s capital city, commemorating the 1920 ‘Battle of Warsaw’, when Polish forces defeated the Soviet Red Army.
I’d flown into Warsaw that morning on a red-eye from Boston. I’d checked in on Facebook at Logan, posting: “Ironic that the day I'm flying to a city 85% destroyed by Nazis, neo-Nazis are planning to march in Boston.”
|Charlottesville Protest. Photo from Andy Campbell, Twitter. @AndyBCampbell|
I’d also worried that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party’s authoritarian maneuvers––dismantling the state council tasked with combating racism despite rising hate crime, restricting public assembly and attempted replacement of Poland's Supreme Court with politically picked allies––had inspired our President, and his July visit to Poland.
My mother, Joasia, was born on her grandparent’s kitchen table, in 1942, close to where thousands of patriots waved flags at the Armed Forces Day parade. In 1940, Germans had begun cramming more than four hundred thousand Polish Jews into streets spanning 1.3 square miles, around eleven times New York City’s density.
Joasia’s grandparents were trapped in their once palatial home, hemmed in by ten-foot high brick walls marking the Warsaw ghetto’s boundaries. Children in threadbare clothes crouched on street corners crying, stick-thin brothers and sisters lying dead beside them. A Catholic friend smuggled small food parcels to Joasia’s mother and grandparents to keep them from starving.
A month after Joasia’s birth, Nazis rushed into fetid buildings, shoved guns at women, pushed children down stairwells into the streets. Aiming weapons at the sick and old, they shot them in beds, in hallways. Women screamed, running from courtyards. Some carried bundles, suitcases, a precious pair of shoes, a shawl, a last piece of silver. SS soldiers drove terrified crowds toward the Umschlagplatz. They pushed them onto cattle-cars, slammed the doors shut, hauled them to Treblinka.
Joasia’s father crushed two sedatives. He forced her to swallow. When she was asleep, he tucked her into a backpack. The Catholic friend delivered him false ID papers. The friend helped him walk past gun-toting Nazis guarding the checkpoint-gate.
Joasia’s grandparents died in Treblinka and Madjanek concentration camps. Joasia hid in a house with her parents outside Warsaw. But when she was eleven months old, the gestapo shot and killed her mother.
On Armed Forces day, Warsaw police arrested activists chanting “down with fascism,” and “down with nationalism.” Those arrested held signs reading “get fascists off our streets," carrying banners and photos naming Heather Heyer, the woman killed two days earlier in Charlottesville after a white supremacist rammed protestors with a car. Before they were arrested, the activists had attempted to stop far-right extremists marching. The Police took down their names and addresses. Meanwhile, they guarded the anti-democracy extremists
At the same time in the US, news outlets reported the Justice Department’s sweeping demands for 1.3 million IP addresses of a protest website’s visitors, along with communications and personal data. Authoritarianism’s warning signs alarm me.
My mother often says, “enough about the past, we need to live for the future."
My mother is right about many things, but she’s wrong to dismiss her past. More than seventy years after Nazism’s defeat, President Trump bullies Muslims, people of color and immigrants, and only grudgingly condemns Neo-Nazis carrying swastikas and tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Inciting fear, he unites people against an ‘other’.
The man who helped rescue my mother acted against hate. The woman hiding her, ignored Nazi death penalties.
When I see our country so divided, my mother’s heroes inspire me. They inspire me to talk with people who think differently from me. They inspire me to find one thing in common––viewing a solar eclipse, shopping for back-to-school, maybe. They inspire me to focus on those things. Not, our differences.