When I was quite young, early in elementary school, I ignored my parents strong warning and sat in a hotel auditorium full of chain smoking teenagers (this was probably 1963) watching a movie about Jewish history. The movie was called Let My People Go, it was an argument for a Jewish state being the only solution in a world that was constantly trying to kill the eternally homeless Jews. The idea was that if the Jews had a state like every other nation, it would be a refuge that could be defended against all enemies. Without a state, it was always a matter of time until mobs could be loosed on the Jews — as they had been to murderous effect against most of my own family, just thirteen years before I was born, as I’d later learn.
My parents urged me not to see the movie partly because I was subject to terrible dreams as a boy. Looking back now, I see these dreams as an expression of my fear at being constantly attacked by a prosecutorial father and an emotional mother who generally followed the old man’s lead. Something about the hot seat I often sat in didn’t sit right with me, if I may put it that way. I was left to work out what was wrong with this picture in my fertile imagination, which expressed itself in nightmares back then.
My mother read me a book about Noah’s Ark, and turned the pages of the large picture book where I saw thousands drowning in the swirling flood waters, because they were wicked. I wasn’t consoled by the fact that God found all these millions of creatures wicked, I was upset about all the animals that drowned, every lamb, calf, koala bear, puppy, kitten, along with every child on the earth at that time. I was too young to think “what the fuck kind of insanely vengeful God is this who takes this kind of psycho revenge on evil humans by wiping out virtually all life on the planet?” I didn’t think “how come he spared all the aquatic creatures?”. I had a recurrent nightmare of drowning, especially during thunder storms. Eventually, one rainy day, my mother took me to Far Rockaway where we drove past homes built right on the ocean front. That probably helped.
I lost my fear of dying in another one of God’s angry floods, but then it was a scene from a Tarzan movie I saw one day on the little black and white portable TV with the rabbit ears. Jane and some other white folks were escaping from a tribe of cannibals who had tied them up. I don’t know how this could be true, but I recall vividly the moment when a hurled spear felled Jane from behind as she fled. Must have grazed her, I don’t know how else to explain it. Tarzan eventually saved the day but the image of that cannibal brute hurling that spear into Jane’s back as she ran for her life chilled me to the bone. It wasn’t Jane in my nightmares, who was getting the point of a spear between her shoulder blades, it was my mother. Who was throwing the spear? No idea, but who would do such a thing? Who ate people?
My mother took me to the library where she found a book about Hollywood movie making that had plenty of photos of actors, almost all of them white, being painted black and turned into cannibals for Tarzan movies. In one, a half-black painted cannibal is wearing glasses, reading the paper while a make up artist works on him. He’s smoking a cigarette. “You see?” my mother said, “it’s all fake. These people all go home to their own kids, it’s movie making, it’s fantasy, made up, not real”. I did see. I think it had an effect on my cannibal nightmares. The racist underpinnings of the Tarzan franchise, the nonchalant endorsement of colonialism and the scarcity of actual cannibalism among Africans, were not important to me at that time. I had a way to understand that I’d been sold a tissue of bullshit by a Hollywood movie and the dreams stopped.
“With Tarzan I could show you it was all make believe. This movie will show you things that are worse than any bad dream you ever had, and I can’t show you anything to make them go away because these things actually happened,” my mother told me with tears in her eyes. She cried as she begged me not to see the movie. But I was a tough guy and I insisted. She sobbed, my father attempted to bully me, but I wouldn’t back down so they let me have my way.
I remember a smug feeling as I watched the early scenes, stone carvings, etchings, crude drawings of brutality, somber narration. “This is nothing…” I remember thinking, once again my parents just being jerks, treating me like a baby. As the movie traveled from antiquity to the present day the images got more and more realistic, until there were photographs. That got my attention. “Are those people dead?” I remember thinking as they flashed a photo from the Age of Pogroms in Russia in the early twentieth century, The thought may have occurred to me, “Jesus, my grandparents came from Russia and they must have been alive by then…”
Then there were movies, which really got my attention. I’d heard of Hitler and there he was, dancing that insane fake jig I learned years later had been a neat bit of editing by an American or British propagandist who took a clip of a triumphant Hitler stamping his foot and repeated it several times to make it appear he was doing a mad victory jig. Hitler himself, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, had nothing but admiration for such hate and fear-inspiring propaganda tricks and, as he was sitting on top of the world after the fall of Paris, or maybe it was Poland, I’m sure he wasn’t much bothered by his weak enemies trying to make him look crazy.
I seem to remember my little sister there with me at first, but she was gone by then. All around me the smoking teenagers were crying. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. The perhaps ten second black and white film clip is seared in my memory as if it was put there by a branding iron. A short stocky man in a cap, with a cigar or cigarette in his mouth, is wheeling a gigantic wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow is full of naked, jiggling, rubbery looking skeletons covered with skin. He comes to the edge of a gigantic pit, with a chute. He upends the wheelbarrow and the emaciated corpses wriggle down the chute. There was a cherry on top. The guy with the cap throws his cigar in after them and heads back for another load of skeletons.
On the soundtrack violins are weeping and wailing as this hideous action takes place. The teenagers around me are all sobbing. I make a run for it, through the cigarette smoke illuminated by the light of the projector. Make it up to our room in the hotel above, get through the door, see my mother’s crying face and immediately vomit my guts out.
In those moments the beginning of my worldview was sealed. Governments, like people, are capable of good or great evil. When a violent madman is in charge, millions of people will do whatever he tells them to do, no matter how insane. You can disobey the authorities, of course, but they will just torture or kill you, it’s nothing to them. None of us are safe, especially if you belong to a traditionally despised minority group.
As I grew older I was mystified and disgusted by the arguments victim groups seem to constantly have about who suffered the worst. Instead of all victims working together, somehow we became divided into interest groups, suffering lobbies. Blacks and Jews, once allies in the Civil Rights struggle here, wound up turned against each other. The argument over who suffered more is often bitter.
The atrocity of the slave trade lasted for centuries, it was an unspeakably dehumanizing horror involving widespread rape and murder and millions died after being kidnapped from their homes in Africa. In the US, after the official end of slavery, there was a century of white supremacist terrorism the US government did nothing about. There were frequent pogroms in which many blacks, including old people and children, were massacred in what were always misleadingly called “race riots”. There is still widespread racism against the descendants of slaves that half of the country is in violent denial about.
The Jews caught organized hell in Europe where, during a two year-period 1942-1943 virtually my entire family was massacred. It was history’s most prodigious act of mechanized genocide, millions killed on an industrial scale in a few short years. Jews have been hated for two thousand years or more, stubborn, proud, too smart, often defamed as deicides. killers of Jesus.
How are these things — the Holocaust and the Slave Trade — different in their essence? And there have been others, everywhere, just as horrific. What use is the infernal debate about whose suffering is worse? We all need to work together or Hitler and the Klan win, no? This has been in my mind since I disobeyed my parents and saw that awful movie as kid.
(end of part one)