My maternal grandparents were both born in Germany. I always knew them as Bruzz and Opa: Opa is an informal German term for grandfather; Bruzz is an informal version of the sound sausages made in the frying pan when my grandmother cooked them for Fino, her dog. Those sausages usually came from Jörg, their favourite butcher in Mainz. After Hitler took power, Jews were no longer allowed to buy meat at stores where Christians shopped, but Jörg had always arranged to have meat delivered to their house. So when in 1940, they finally got their US visa, Bruzz wanted to say a personal goodbye.
They went to his shop and went in, even though it was forbidden. Bruzz explained, “We’ve just come in to say farewell, not to buy anything. Our visas for the US have arrived, so we’re taking the train to Berlin today, we’ll stay there overnight, and then tomorrow get on the trans-Siberian railroad.”
Jörg started yelling at her, “How dare you come in here! You know Jews aren’t allowed in here! And what hotel in Berlin would allow Jews to stay in it, anyway?”
Bruzz stammered out, “It’s the Metropole. It’s a very good hotel.”
Jörg roared, “Well, I’ll never stay there again. Get out, and good riddance.”
Saddened and hurt, they left. When they got to Berlin that night, and checked into the Metropole, the clerk explained a package was waiting for them. Jörg had telephoned a fellow butcher in Berlin and arranged for the delivery of a giant picnic hamper, stuffed with jams and cold cuts, and a giant smoked beef tongue, all of which helped them survive the trip by train across Russia, by boat to Japan, and on to Seattle where they settled.
Almost 30 years later I was visiting them in Seattle, and Bruzz and I were talking about Hitler and Germans. She said though she passionately hated Hitler, she didn’t hold a grudge against Germans, that the same thing could easily happen in the US, or in Canada. With the sweeping wisdom of a 19 year old who knew everything, I explained that she was wrong. Fascism could never take hold in North America, because we had laws and constitutions that would prevent that from happening. That was a half century ago. Today I look around and see that not only could it can happen here, but it is happening here. It has happened here. So the question is what am I going to do about it.
Like many others, I thought Donald Trump was a joke candidate, running on ego, with no chance to win. I believed that he would never get the Republican nomination; I was sure Hilary would beat him; I was convinced that Obama’s record had shown a president really didn’t have that much power to change things. And I felt it just underlined how different we were up here, that the Islamophobia that fed Trump’s rhetoric would slide off Canada’s body politic like water off a beaver’s back. Then came the executive orders, forbidding entry from Muslim countries with which Trump didn’t have business interests. And then came the terrorism in Québec; six Muslims killed and nineteen wounded while praying in a mosque. And once again, I realize that the chart by which I’m guiding my spaceship is wrong. It didn’t show the black holes, and though I thought I had studied the heavens carefully, black holes don’t show up very well against darkness. And now we’re all spiralling into them, and as time dilates and slows down I have to think about what I want to do.
The easiest is to do nothing, always. Even Bruzz, wise as she was, was only in Germany in 1940 because she hadn’t wanted to leave earlier believing the madness would pass. Opa, 16 years older, was wiser and finally managed to get her to leave. After all, I am relatively safe; while there is a surge in anti-semitism, it is Muslims who are being primarily scapegoated. I am male, and women are being targeted. I am white, and the targets are people of colour. I could just do nothing while they come for all the others. But even I know by now where that approach leads. I saw a great sign in a demo last week that said, “First they came for the Muslims, and I said, ‘Not this time, motherfucker.’ ” That’s where I have to stand.
Because when the slope gets steep enough, it doesn’t even have to be very slippery. If “alternative facts” become part of a debate, then he who tweets loudest wins. As Voltaire observed “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” A week ago a five year old Muslim was handcuffed at JFK airport, because he “might have been dangerous”. That seemed absurd. Four days ago an eight year old Muslim girl was killed in a US drone operation, by operators that knew she would be there, but also knew that “members of her family were affiliated with terrorists.”
I don’t know how yet. Should I boycott anything financially associated with the Donald? Of course. Stop going to see friends and relatives in the US? Maybe. It seems premature to give up on Canada–I walked past our local mosque today, and the windows were covered with messages of support from Jews, from school kids, from church leaders. But the world has become more complex and interwoven, creating a panicked feeling in people that there must be a simple answer to their increasing diminishment. As Mencken, that wise American cynic, observed shortly before the rise of Hitler, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” I need to be fully present with this horror, and like Jörg, be able to act in any moment to help fight it. That’s the only way now I can apologize to Bruzz.