I used to laugh when my Holocaust survivor aunt would put her finger to her lips and say “Secret Service!” if you asked her for whom she voted.
Her response reflected her innate suspicion, maybe even fear of governments.
It was strange to see this particular aunt discomforted.
To me, she was, as they say, “tough as nails”.
She was the first one in the family to marry after the war (1946); have a baby (1947) and emigrate from postwar Germany to America (1948). She immediately found a job and began to work, in all places in a bridal shop a few blocks away from her Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment. She was a trained seamstress, specializing in sparkling rhinestones and luminescent pearl embedded embroidery.
She was 11 years older than my mother, the youngest of four sisters. She had a more motherly, than sisterly relationship with my mother who was especially, soft-hearted and sensitive. My aunt, who could be brusque and even domineering with everyone, including her husband and daughter, was gentle with my mother. My mother depended on and looked up to her.
It seemed to me that my aunt was fearless.
She even took my sister and me into Manhattan to become part of the audience of a children’s television program. She talked to everyone, in fact, she intimated everyone she talked to.
But there was one area in which my aunt seemed to fear to tread.
Like my mother, she would avoid anyone in a uniform, even the young patrolman on our block.
Perhaps, she had memories of being arrested in the cosmopolitan city of Bucharest, where she and one of her sisters had gone as representatives of my grandfather’s pottery manufacturing business. I imagine that they were picked up in the street or had been exposed by an informer. She never spoke about it. They were soon transported to Auschwitz, when they were tattooed and held as slave laborers. A few weeks later, my mother and her parents and other sister arrived. Their parents were killed immediately. My aunt, it was said, worked in “Canada”, the area where the victims clothes were searched and sorted. Occasionally, they found found which they somehow got to their younger sisters. My aunt never talked about that either.
I was a pseudo-cowgirl who knew the words to the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. We were part of the greatest country on earth. We had no need to fear anyone or anything.
Now, after the former American president and leading opposition candidate has been indicted three separate times in the last few months on legally spurious charges while the sitting president who has credibly been accused of receiving tens of millions of dollars from foreign entities while serving as vice-president, suns himself on a Delaware beach, my aunt seems to have been prescient.
The totalitarian instinct of those in power, it seems, is never far from the surface.
My aunt probably never read the United States Constitution, its limitations on government or its guarantees of civil liberties.
She just knew the sound of the jackboots, the guttural “Juden Raus!” and the pain of the needles injecting black dye into her arm.