I grew up believing that American democracy was the corrective to the fascist virus that overtook Germany in the 1930s, and that I lived in a country which, while deeply flawed, was fundamentally committed to justice and becoming more so. I think my refugee father believed the same thing.
My father was born Jewish in Berlin, in 1928. When Hitler came to power, Peter Sussman was five years old; he and his mother and father moved to Prague, and then fled Prague for Amsterdam in 1938. Two years later, the Germans invaded Holland. My father and his parents were eventually deported, first to Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland, and then to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany.
Their deportation occurred after the Joods Lyceum, the Jewish school he attended, had been shut down; after his girlfriend, Elly, had disappeared (she was murdered at Sobibor); after Otto Frank, father of Anne, who had been a student at the Joods Lyceum with my father, visited my grandparents to say that he and his family were trying to leave the country, which was the Franks’ cover story before they went into hiding in a secret annex on the premises of Otto’s business.
Compared to many others, my father and his parents were lucky. They survived Bergen Belsen and were eventually allowed to come the United States, after first being sent to a camp in North Africa run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where they adjusted to something approaching normal life. My father was 17 years old when he arrived in New York, in May of 1945. He learned English, attended high school, graduated from college and later worked for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
Unlike some survivors, my father was able to talk about his experiences, although he spoke of them sparingly. The shelves in his study held books with titles like “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The ‘Final Solution’ in History” and “The Destruction of the European Jews.” He read widely, in German, English, Dutch and French, and tracked domestic and foreign affairs with the avidity of one who understands how much may depend on being attuned to them.
When my brothers and I were adults, he wrote us a series of letters describing his childhood. But I still had questions. I had inadvertently become the family historian, and I had a hard time reconciling the world I knew — I was born in Washington D.C. in 1963, when it was still Camelot — with the one my father had come from. How had such a thing happened? How had people allowed it to happen? How had it shaped him, and by extension, me?
I share all this because of my concerns about the current administration. As a resident of New York City in the 1980s, I knew Donald Trump by his reputation there: a self-aggrandizing con man whose ineptitude was matched only by his wrongheadedness. What alarms and saddens me is how many Americans willingly bought and still buy his alternative facts, how many eagerly join him in deeming refugees and immigrants a threat to our country, despite the actual evidence, and in trying to prevent them from becoming “real” Americans — as if most “real” Americans aren’t immigrants themselves. If recent history is a lesson from which we can learn, then, in the end, their efforts will hurt not only the refugees and immigrants they reject but themselves and the country they call home.
Below is an excerpt from a letter my father wrote me in response to my questions. His answer is haunting and instructive, particularly in light of the recent resurgence of open bigotry here in the United States.
Thinking about your questions, it occurred to me that they really have a single theme: how central was the memory of my childhood experiences to my adult life? That is an interesting question.
When we first arrived here, the memories were very fresh, but interest in them was minimal. As far as I remember, the Walden School students, most of whom were Jewish, never expressed the slightest interest. Beyond that, even our relatives never asked us about our experiences. Many people simply weren’t interested. Others must have thought that we would be better off forgetting those years of horror. As I told you, the general interest in the holocaust had not yet arisen. So, since I am not one to volunteer, I did not talk about the war years, or what led up to them. At first, I had some friends in New York who had shared my experiences, but we didn’t talk about them either.
So gradually the memories faded, and when the time came to make some major decisions, such as getting married, they played virtually no role at all. By the time you guys came along, I knew that I would want to tell you all about it in due course, but not before you were ready. I didn’t think that you should be burdened with it when you were little, and were just beginning to form a concept of what the world is all about. It seems cruel to me to cast a dark shadow on those early years, which ought to be largely imbued with optimism. Then came the years when children are fascinated with drama and excitement, a fascination which is unduly and clumsily heightened by television. I didn’t want my experiences to be transformed into a two-dimensional adventure story, to be used when you played a form of “can you top this” with your friends. That almost struck me as a form of secular sacrilege.
Finally you became adults, and I wanted to tell you all about it. Your coming of age more or less coincided with the world-wide interest in the holocaust, mostly on the part of Jews, but also on the part of others. From silence we went to a hugely amplified cacophony of disparate voices, all expressing their view on what happened and what lessons are to be drawn from it. Much of it disturbed me, because it twisted historical truth (an elusive concept) for contemporary ends. I was all the more disturbed because the witnesses are reaching age levels at which they can’t be expected to be around much longer. To the greatest degree possible, we must preserve the record of what happened.
When I say “what happened,” I don’t just mean the ultimate horror, but also the events that led up to it.
We attended an Anne Frank dinner the other day, at which a high school student talked very movingly of her recent trip to Poland and her visit to Auschwitz, Maidanek and Treblinka. She showed slides of the gas chambers, the crematoria, piles of abandoned shoes, stacks of suitcases with Jewish names dutifully marked on them, and other items that brought the “final solution of the Jewish question” almost palpably close to this group of Jews, teenagers and Denver schoolteachers. The student who made the presentation broke down and cried when she was finished. Near the end of her talk, she complained bitterly that the world did nothing while these death factories swallowed up millions of Jewish men, women and children.
That is an understandable, and oft repeated outcry, but it misses the point. By the time the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews, the world was at war, and the only solution was speedy and complete victory over the Nazis. Nothing else made much sense or would have brought anything but minimal relief. The guilty silence occurred much earlier, when an evil genius came to power in Germany, who had written a book which clearly prefigured where the Nazi program was headed. Then he turned his brownshirted hoodlums loose on the streets of German to hound, torture and kill Jews and political opponents. Then came “Kristallnacht,” and the burning of books, not to speak of the concentration camps. The “civilized” world looked on and did nothing. There may have been an occasional “tsk, tsk,” but that was about it. That was the time when the lives of millions of Jews were lost, because the world still had the power to rein Hitler in. By ‘42 it was much, much too late.
This tragedy affected me, perhaps even more than the year in Belsen. Emigration at age 4 is difficult enough, but the sense of being hounded while an indifferent world looks on is worse. I figured out the other day that, after we left Berlin in ‘33, I was not again adequately housed until I got an apartment in Washington in ‘59, just before I got married. In between my parents and I lived either in too-small apartments (2 rooms) or in pensions filled with scared, harried and nervous German-Jewish refugees. From my earliest childhood I knew that Hitler was evil incarnate, and that he had to be stopped. I also knew that nobody was stopping him, as he went from the Rhineland to Austria, to the Sudetenland, to the rest of Czechoslovakia, to Poland, to Denmark, to Norway, and finally to our refuge, Holland. It was evil triumphant and seemingly unstoppable.
My own years in Prague were difficult. I lived among people whose language I didn’t understand and whose sympathy for German-Jewish refugees was very limited indeed. My school was lousy, and my parents were constantly anxious and nervous. Holland was much better, but the respite was so very brief. We got there in May ‘38. It took me about a year, I think, to get comfortable. So, let us say, by May ‘39 I felt at home in Amsterdam. The Germans invaded in May ‘40, and smashed my world to smithereens. The three and a half years before our deportation were awful. It was like being caught in a vise that tightens slowly but inexorably, until, finally, everything that makes life worth living is gone and you wait to be thrown away.
My father signed all of his other letters to his children, “Love, Daddy.” This letter is unsigned. It just ends. Two years after writing it, my father died of cancer, at the age of 66.
Fear of the “other” is what kept my European Jewish father and grandparents out of the United States until after the war. It’s what nourished the hatred that allowed Hitler and the Nazis to murder as many Jews, Roma, and others as they did. That same impulse is at work overtime today in the country I supposed to be my father’s refuge. The isolationist lie of ‘America First’ has received a shiny new paint job and been wheeled out again, a lie World War II should have obliterated, a lie as antithetical to our democracy as the paranoid House Un-American Activities Committee, which we also seem well on the way to resurrecting if we don’t correct course.
Once, just before he died, I confessed to my father that I was worried about our country. I don’t remember which incident on the international stage had made me fear for our future. My father told me then that the United States and what it stood for, this democratic experiment, would only be destroyed from within. At the time, I found that comforting, because it struck me as improbable. Today we have a president who seems bent on convincing the American people that our free press, the fourth pillar of democracy, is our enemy.
Donald Trump is not an “evil genius.” To call him Hitler is to surrender the power we have and imagine that we know how this ends. But there is at least one critical lesson the world can and must take from my father’s experience: When a politician tells you up front that he plans to target a particular group of people based on, for example, their religion alone, and then starts stripping them of their civil rights, when he undermines the admittedly imperfect but essential institutions put in place to protect freedom of religion and speech by dismissing them as “bad” and “fake” if they disagree with him, don’t make excuses. Don’t wait to see what happens.
Take that man at his word, and resist — now, while it is still an option.