Preparing for Bravery, Whatever That Means.


I read Anne Frank’s diary for the first time in third grade and before that, Lois Lowry’s book Number the Stars, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and, after that, the collection of photographs and stories in We Remember the Holocaust, and then our family went to The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. soon after it opened and waited in a long line to get in. I read Maus by Art Spiegelman and Elie Wiesel’s Night and then, Day, and I saw Schindler’s List in a movie theater with my dad soon after it was released. My great grandmother and her brothers left Poland for New York soon after the end of the First World War, but those who stayed were killed by Nazis and a black and white photograph of one of these families hung on the wall that faced our front door for my entire childhood. My parents did not demand I immerse myself in the history that haunted one side of my family; it was my doing, first prompted by my grandmother and maintained by my overwhelming fear of death.

Other Jewish girls have written about their grade school fascination with the Holocaust so I know I’m not unique, I know I was part of a silent army of women who could not help but imagine what we would have done, had we been born back then. Would we have been brave? What does it mean to have been brave? Would our parents have had the foresight or money to send us away? Would we have been old enough to join the resistance? Would we have lived through the horrors and for how long? Questions like these hung over my head for years and only receded when I was old enough to see that my existence, as a Jew, was not considered a threat by my government. And so, my worries became entirely hypothetical, not actual. Lucky me.

Meanwhile, a year later, at 11, I got my period, as girls do. The only horror of it then was figuring out how to put in a tampon so I could go to swim practice. My right to an abortion was not a conundrum, even if I didn’t know it then: Roe v. Wade was not at great risk during the 1990s.

I was a freshman in college on September 11th, 2001, and my friends and I read Seymour Hersh’s articles in The New Yorker, listened to Democracy Now, attended academic debates about the necessity of going to Iraq and the threat of racial profiling. The conundrum remained, however, philosophical, for me, not immediate or practical. I was an eighteen-year old white woman in Michigan. I would not be profiled, nor would I be expected to go to war and none of the men I knew were volunteering.

I am thirty-three years old now. I have an almost three-year old son. In the 15 years since I went to college, I have despaired, albeit quietly, one presidency and been awed and buoyed by this most recent one. I live in New York City. Here, we are suspicious of everyone and no one and because we ride the subway shoulder to shoulder with each other, we generally shut down people who come in swinging. Most of us know the stranger is not the danger; the danger is the people who shove the stranger. I believe Black Lives Matter, I post articles about this, I put the words up on my Twitter background. But what have I really done? As sad as I feel about it, what the fuck have I really done? People in my city, the one I know to be tolerant, have, both very recently and for years, have been harassed and brutalized on the same trains I ride on every day. I just didn’t know it and I let myself not know it.  

I’ve woken up every morning since Wednesday with a hollow in my stomach. It is anxiety and I know why it is there.

Martin Niemöller’s words, words that are not hypothetical, bang like shrill, necessary bells:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I wondered as a child when the time would come to be brave. When I imagined it back then, it was preceded by a knock on the door, a group of serious, awful men in boots, an order to follow them; it was death. It was everything I’d read about and the only part I couldn’t figure out was what I would do in the face of it.

Well. Here we are.

I know the time is now to say the hard things, yes, and to resist through protest and through words. It is time to speak for the marginalized, to speak as the marginalized, to organize peacefully with those who believe in the freedoms of every person living in this country, to look past Tuesday toward the future and extend a hand to the people like Martin Niemöller, who was, at first, a Nazi supporter, and then later, changed his mind.

Minds can be changed, but only if we speak up so loudly, it is impossible not to hear us.

Will I be brave?

Will you?