Learning fear or resilience

Neither of my parents ever learned much about resilience from their parents, something I can easily understand the reasons for.  My mother’s parents were the sole survivors of their two large families, the last of their 12 combined siblings survived hell only to be marched to a Ukrainian ravine on the edge of town where they were each shot in the back of the head one August evening in 1943. 

My father’s parents experienced something similar, my grandmother and her older brother, my tough, intrepid great-uncle Aren, were the only two survivors of their family, from a hamlet in the marshes south of Pinsk that cannot be found on any map of the world.  There was an aktion, a coordinated massacre of virtually all the Jews of the Pinsk area and, as in many areas the Nazis overran, little Jewish towns were erased from history.   

Like my mother’s parents, my great-uncle and his sister came to America decades before the mass murder.   I know nothing of what happened to my paternal grandfather’s family, or even where they came from in Europe.

You learn that powers arose not long before you were born who decided your entire family needed to be exterminated, and then rolled up their sleeves and did it.  It’s an unsettling thing to learn as a kid.  What the fuck? you think.  I still think that.  Like slavery, like seven year-old American prostitutes, like a century of public lynching, the genocide of Native Americans, like all unspeakable things done by certain humans to other humans, all you can wonder is ‘what the fucking fuck?’.   Nothing unique in any of this evil, the history of humanity is still being written in our blood, on endless scrolls, by killers who believe they are doing what must be done.

The new field of epigenetics studies the genetic changes produced in survivors of severe trauma, genetic changes that are then passed on.   Having your entire family massacred is surely a severe trauma, even if you weren’t there to see it.   Passed along with these changes in the body’s DNA are traits like fear and resilience.  Some, in the face of terror, resolve to be brave, to fight, to hide, to survive, to live to take revenge by thriving.  Most, in the face of a mob of murderers coming to kill them do not fare as well.

In the 1970s certain right-wing American Jews seized on the slogan “Never Again!” to unite in a hard-nosed organization to smash the stereotype of Jews going meekly to the slaughter.  I understand the impulse, I really do, but unless you want to become a violent bully so that you won’t be bullied, more context, as always, is needed.   

Take any group of bookish, peaceful people who have no guns, lie to them about their destination, give them false hope of survival as you shepherd them toward their slaughter and– well, you can see that determined men with guns will have no problem getting folks like these to line up anywhere they are told to line up.    There were young Jews who, once they saw what was happening in places like the Warsaw Ghetto, took up weapons and killed a few Nazis, but they mostly died as anonymous martyrs, leaving behind many thousands killed in reprisal.  Your classic no-win situation: outgunned by a trigger-happy enemy only too happy to kill a thousand for every one of them killed.

My family never discussed any of this history directly.  My grandfather was a frightened man, understandably so.  My grandmother was the tougher one, but she also drank increasing amounts of vodka as she got older.  My grandfather, I learned to my surprise, was also capable of downing huge draughts of vodka. I observed this once, unseen, toward the end of his life.   He picked up the bottle and drank it like he was drinking water.  He didn’t even wipe his lips afterwards, just screwed the cap back on and put the bottle away.   

My father’s parents I never met, both died before I was born.   I visit their graves when I visit the cemetery north of Peekskill where my father and uncle are also buried.   I knew their son very well, my father, and though he took a few principled stands over the years, it is hard to see him as a resilient man.  He took things hard.  He locked his fears inside of himself.  He suffered mightily from severe psoriasis, which grew more inflamed whenever he was under stress.  He raged as an over-the-top tough guy in the safety of his little family.  He felt bad about these things as he was dying.

I can’t say where I fall on the spectrum between despair and resilience.  What I have learned of resilience I have had to learn on my own, my parents knew little about it.   I’m remembering my father’s advice when I asked him about becoming a member of The National Lawyers Guild.  This would have been in the year 2000, when I was admitted to practice law in New York State.

The Lawyers Guild, founded in 1937, is a progressive legal organization with roots in labor struggles, anti-Klan activities and The New Deal — also some more radical strands.   My father, as a college student after World War Two, was drawn to Communist ideas.  After all, why should certain people continue to be born booted and spurred to ride the rest of us?   Jared Kushner?   Really?   His feces emit no bad odor, reportedly, but he is, in virtually every way, very much like a duller version of you or me, is he not? 

My father was raised in extreme poverty, during the Depression and FDR’s New Deal, he came by his egalitarian beliefs honestly.   He believed in the struggle for justice, even as he was hampered by the terror instilled in him early.  I will never know if he attended the 1949 Paul Robeson/Pete Seeger concerts outside of Peekskill.  He would have been a student at Syracuse University by then, or possibly just starting graduate school at Columbia.   

My uncle had a copy of Howard Fast’s account of the bloody mass assault that prevented the planned benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress from happening.  I first saw the brown paperback on a bookshelf in the apartment he shared with my aunt in the assisted living facility in Bethesda.  My uncle had already passed away.   I asked my aunt, quite dotty by then, if I could borrow the book.  I read it and have it still, but by the time I read it there was nobody alive who could tell me if my father, or my uncle, had been at the ill-fated concert, or the one held a week later, with increased security provided by labor unions and American communists.  These events are now collectively known as the Peekskill Riots .   

Paul Robeson, former All-American college athlete (he played two seasons in the NFL while at Columbia Law School in the early 1920s), lawyer (briefly), actor and singer, was an outspoken black man who, after a political awakening during the Spanish Civil War [1] eventually found himself at the center of the Cold War.   He may or may not have been a member of the American Communist party (which was never legally banned, that I know of).   I recall he visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and afterwards, and advocated peace with The USSR, a place where he was never called ‘nigger’.   

But for all the racists and reactionaries in Peekskill and its environs, there was no doubt that this black commie troublemaker should be strung up as an example to the others.   They burned crosses and lynched him in effigy the night of the first concert, the one that didn’t happen. During the month I was born the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was putting the last nails into the outspoken Robeson’s professional coffin, for being critical of American racism, and economic exploitation, and praising the Soviet experiment.  The U.S. government really fucked Paul Robeson up, but the Klan and American Legion thugs who converged on the planned concert north of Peekskill never got their hands on him.

The haters had to content themselves with ambushing, stoning and beating up people who came to the concert, as the cops looked on in amusement.  That Pete Seeger, a local white guy who’d be blacklisted as a possible commie a few years later, was among the performers there made it irresistible for local racists, antisemites and other authoritarian types to go to the  outdoor concert grounds to break  heads.

The following week the brotherhood crowd were better organized.  Thousands of young idealists in t-shirts formed a human wall around the perimeter of the concert area.   The concert, to raise money for a civil rights group, was held.  It was only afterwards, in nearby Cortlandt, on the narrow road near my father’s grave, now called Oregon Road, that elated concertgoers on their way home were ambushed and pelted with rocks the size of fists.  The gauntlet they had to run went on for miles.

I’ll never know if my father was there either night.  What I learned shortly after he died was that he had spoken to Parent/Teacher groups in New York City public schools about Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that stated the obvious about the destructive nature of racial segregation.  In New York City the man who’d soon become my father was pelted with crap, cursed at, snarled at by white parents and teachers appalled by the speaker’s support of the landmark, and largely symbolic– it must finally be said– Supreme Court ruling.  He went to the next school with a police escort.  These strike me as brave, principled actions, but I will never know any more details about them than what I learned from my mother as I was preparing his eulogy and have written just now.

It was 2000, I was looking for work as a new lawyer, and I was somewhat half-hearted about it.   My father, in a stream of lawyer jokes he sent me during law school, included the one about why they were using law students instead of rats in lab experiments.  The NIH defended the practice as follows:

1. The lab assistants were becoming very attached to their little rats. This emotional involvement was interfering with the research being conducted. No such attachment could form with a law student.

2. Lawyers breed faster and are in much greater supply.

3. Lawyers are much cheaper to care for and the humanitarian societies won’t jump all over you no matter what you’re studying.

4. There are some things even a rat won’t do.

I’d wind up practicing subsistence lawyering  for ten years, maintain my license to this day, but it was ten years of bitterness, I can assure you.   Early on I heard about the National Lawyers Guild and called my father to discuss joining it.   I rarely sought his advice about anything, as he always pointed out on the rare occasions that I did, but I called him about joining the Lawyers Guild.   

His fear came directly through the phone, even as he applauded everything the Lawyers Guild did and the principles they advocate for.  He was worried, though, that by joining the Lawyers Guild I might be putting myself on a blacklist that would prevent me from getting paying work.  Cheney and Dubya Bush were already president and a dark day for America, and the world, was starting to fully dawn.  Our nation was about to head to the dark side, to do what must be done, in the shadows, as the evil Mr. Cheney told the mass media, with his characteristic smirk.   

I did not join the Lawyers Guild.  I didn’t get involved in the legal fight against encroaching tyranny, nor did I water the tree of liberty with so much as a drop of my blood.  I am thinking now that had I been given a few lessons in resilience, I might not have been as susceptible to my father’s paranoia, understandable though it was.   Just ’cause you’re paranoid don’t mean they ain’t trying to kill you, as the great Satchel Paige observed. [2] 


[1]  Robeson: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”[158]

After the mass lynching of four African Americans on July 25, 1946, Robeson met with President Truman and admonished Truman by stating that if he did not enact legislation to end lynching,[184] “the Negroes will defend themselves”.[184][185] Truman immediately terminated the meeting and declared that the time was not right to propose anti-lynching legislation.[184] 

[2] Jeeves ascribes this observation to Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, to wit:   just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.


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