I look like my father’s father, Georg. I’ve been told that since I was a teen, and having studied the old black and white photographs, I can see it is so.
I am older now than he was when he died, so the resemblance has started to fade.
In 1938, when Hitler took over Austria, Georg was a successful Viennese family physician, a father of two, a devoted and mild-mannered husband to my gloriously temperamental grandmother, Elsa. Georg was Jewish. Elsa was half-Jewish. The family was not religious in the slightest; they were fully assimilated to the cultural life of the glittering Austrian capital.
When Hitler came in, my grandfather shook his head. “There have always been anti-Semites,” he said. “We’ll stay quiet, and things will get better.”
My grandfather was a master soother. Children came to his office terrified and would leave in giggles. The terminally ill found his voice and his touch to be immensely comforting. In private, my father told me, Georg was depressed and moody. In public, he was charming and kind.
Georg was an optimist. Hitler was just another colorful rabble-rousing politician. Things would settle down.
Elsa knew better. She knew what was coming, even if she couldn’t fully name it. Within a few weeks of Hitler’s takeover she was working to get the family out of the country. She tried contacts in the US, New Zealand, France, and even India. They all came to naught — until she learned of a special program in the UK that would allow Jewish doctors and engineers to emigrate with their families.
Georg didn’t want to go. Elsa told him she was taking my father (then 3) and my aunt (then 6) and going, and he could stay behind and look for another wife if he liked. My grandfather, protesting all the way that my grandmother was overreacting and having delusions, reluctantly sold his practice.
My family settled in England, first near Manchester and later in rural Oxfordshire. As you might guess, nearly all the rest of my father’s extended family perished in the Holocaust.
My grandmother’s fear saved the family. My grandfather’s sweet confidence and optimism would have killed them.
So when you tell me, a noted soother and calmer of others, that I should tell Muslims and women and people of color that they have nothing to fear from Trump, I think that perhaps you want me to be like my grandfather.
And I think that perhaps for once in my life, I am not going to counsel calm and preach perspective and rally the kids for sixteen comforting verses of Kumbaya.
People are scared. They have every right to be. Trump’s words speak of an intent to violate fundamental liberties; Trump’s words inveigle violence; Trump’s words abrogate a social contract that says that we should quietly respect election results.
Perhaps Trump will be a better leader than we thought. The burden is entirely on him to prove that his campaign was an act, and that he and his followers pose no threat to women and minorities. Until then, suspicion. Until then, fear. Until then, anger.
Until then, I’m thinking like Elsa, not Georg.