My father was born in a small town in Germany, in 1922. The times were very uncertain and his father, my grandfather Alfred, had trouble finding work, but by the early 1930s Alfred and a partner, a man named Lache, had opened a garage where they fixed cars and motorcycles from England and the United States.
Hitler came to power in 1933. There were no wholesale roundups of Jews at first, but the government began to take away more and more of their civil rights. In 1935 Lache, who wanted the garage for himself, went to the Gestapo and told them that Alfred had said something negative about Hitler.
The Gestapo came to my grandparents’ house and asked for Alfred. My grandmother said that he wasn’t home. Actually he was hiding in the attic. The next day the family fled to Holland.
“Don’t think it can’t happen here,” my father used to say to my brother and me. “We didn’t think it could happen in Germany, we thought we were citizens just like everyone else. It could happen anywhere.”
When I was a child I thought he was wrong, or at least exaggerating, that his experiences had made him pessimistic about humanity. I had enough food and a roof over my head, and I couldn’t imagine anyone going down to the police station to report my parents for anything.
Now, of course, I see that he knew what he was talking about.
Donald Trump is a demagogue in the same vein as Hitler. During the election he told us that our country was in a state of emergency, that we were in grave danger from outsiders, mostly Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And, he said, only he can save us. How would he save us? He didn’t say. We would have to elect him and find out.
I know, I know — it’s a commonplace these days to compare people to Hitler. In my defense, and unlike most of the people on Internet forums, I heard first-hand about what Hitler had done and how he had done it. And I have to tell you that when I hear Trump speak I’m pretty scared. I’m terrified for this country. I’m terrified for Muslims and for Hispanics and for anyone else Trump takes it into his head to rant about.
What’s especially frightening is that Trump seems to have learned a few things from Hitler. During the election he demonized some groups of people and assured other groups that they were special, that they deserved more than they were getting. He encouraged anger and hatred and violence among his followers, and promised them that great things were coming. The next step — and I hope this will never happen, but I fear it will — will be to take away the rights of the people he wants to marginalize. And the step after that is to find some excuse to declare war and/or martial law, and take control of the government.
My grandparents and my father lived peacefully in Holland for five years. Then Hitler invaded, and they were sent to a labor camp in the north of Holland called Westerbork. From there they were transported to Bergen Belsen, where my grandfather Alfred died. Of all my relatives who died in the Holocaust, he’s the one I most wish I had known. Based on what I heard about him, Lache was probably not making up the story he told the Gestapo — I’m pretty sure Alfred spoke his mind about Hitler.
My father has been gone a long time, but I still miss him a lot. For the first time, though, a part of me is glad that he isn’t around. I’m glad that he doesn’t have to see what’s happening to this country, which he loved as only an immigrant can love it. He’d already gone through this once; it would probably kill him to have to go through it again.
This essay was submitted to Refuse Fascism