By Ben Gorvine
Special to WJW
It’s the morning of Jan. 7 — the day after the U.S. Capitol was brought to its knees by either terrorists or patriots, depending on who you ask. I reach for my phone and begin scrolling through my Twitter feed, looking for any coverage I could find about the riots. I find myself staring at a picture of a man who had broken into the Capitol. The front of his hoodie reads “Camp Auschwitz.” “Staff” is printed on the back.
I hope my grandmother doesn’t see this, I think.
Her father, mother, sisters and brothers were murdered. By the “staff” of “Camp Auschwitz.”
My grandmother was 13 years old when her family was pushed into a gas chamber. She was pushed in another direction. She was a slave laborer in Auschwitz for eight months, working near the gas chamber, sorting through the belongings of her family and other Jews.
I say her family, but they were my family, too. I grew up hearing stories of how she and her family were taken to Auschwitz, and I’ve even visited the camp in Poland, yet I still fail to grasp that they were truly my own relatives. It’s almost as if my family’s history took place on a foreign planet.
My grandmother’s stories feel surreal to most people, including me. Every attempt to understand what she went through seems to push the reality of it even further away. But when I saw that man in the hoodie standing inside the Capitol, something changed for me. It felt as if the evil that looms so large in my family’s history broke into my home and was on display for everyone to see. Or perhaps it had been there all along.
My grandmother speaks regularly to high school and college students, and to groups at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She will rarely turn down speaking engagements — to the point of exhaustion. Depending on the audience, small details are left out or kept in, but the overarching narrative remains the same, and so do the lessons she leaves with the listener — we must remember what people are capable of, in order to make sure that what happened to her never happens again. “All it takes is a demagogue,” she explains calmly.
It is commonplace to observe the deep divisions in our society today, and it’s possible for reasonable people to disagree about many political questions. But watching that sea of red hats and Trump flags, standing shoulder to shoulder with “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies and the like, it’s impossible to miss the echoes of my grandmother’s words: the time of the demagogue has returned.
My grandmother did end up seeing the image of the man wearing that hoodie, and she also witnessed the mob break into the building that symbolizes the heart of democracy in this country. As wrenching as these scenes have been for those of us who grew up in America, who assume its guarantees of freedom and tolerance as our natural birthrights, I can only imagine the memories they conjure up for her.
My grandmother tells me that her sense of security and peace of mind have been shaken. She will go on speaking, bringing to us the terrible lessons of the past. It’s up to us to meet the challenge of the present.
Ben Gorvine lives in Washington. His grandmother, Irene Weiss, lives in Fairfax.