Ben Schulman

Echoes of the Dark Past

“I hope this information provides a little comfort. I’ll keep you posted.”

That sentence is rarely the final one of an email. It is an especially unusual ending to an email when the recipient is a Holocaust survivor in her late eighties. It’s not the type of email I ever envisioned sending to my ‘second grandmother’ at a time when Israel is not at war.

The email was not news about terror in Israel, anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world, a policy battle in the U.S., or initiatives to improve the lives of Holocaust survivors in the United States and abroad. My email to her was a means of relieving her fears about this presidential election. It was the ending to an email containing statistics from election forecasting websites such as FiveThirtyEight and New York Times Upshot to reassure her that, in all likelihood, Hillary Clinton would win the presidency.

Trudy, the woman who I now call my second grandma, survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Much of her family did not. I first heard her story during the March of the Living, a two-week experience that exposes participants to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and then celebrates the Jewish rebirth in Israel. I was horrified by the cruelty of what I heard from her story, which included German soldiers setting up a fake Red Cross station, opening the doors of the train for their emaciated prisoners, and mowing down those who jumped off the train and ran towards the ‘aid’. The remains of places like Auschwitz and Madjanek–the gas chambers, the piles of shoes and baby clothes, the enormous pile of human ashes–are seared into my memory forever. It was the clearest view of humanity at its worst.

At the same time, the March was also a view of humanity at its best, and Trudy made that abundantly clear. After spending a year in British Palestine, she came to the United States to start a new life and restart a family. Nowadays, she serves as an inspiration to me, and to countless others. She lectures at schools, telling her story of the Holocaust and doing her best to ensure a future without hatred. She accompanied BBYO (the Jewish youth movement through which I attended the March) on the March of the Living for eight years, even when the travel was difficult for her, and the long-distance walking ever more tiresome.

What stands out most about her, however, isn’t her continued vocalness about the Holocaust or her dedication to making the demanding journey. It is her optimism. Trudy, who lost her family due to her Judaism, remains a proud Jew with a firm faith in God. For example, on Yom Kippur, even at her age, she happily fasted. Someone who witnessed the worst cruelty the world has ever known still believes that humanity is good. The person who suffered through the most unforgivable circumstances has always emphasized the value of forgiveness.

Trudy and I talk weekly, discussing what is happening in our respective worlds and the world around us, and I’m always struck by her palpable positivity. There’s a new class with her rabbi that she wants to tell me about, some excitement with her grandkids, Jewish movies to hear about, and the excitement of seeing each other again always present.

Trudy’s optimism, however, has been more cautious of late. Now, her three exclamation point response to my email discussing Hillary’s statistical chances–“I’m an Optimist!!!”–may seem to disprove her more hesitant positivity, but it is deeper than that. When she mentions Donald Trump on our calls, which has been happening increasingly over these last months, her change in tone is noticeable. The woman whose happiness often seems unstoppable takes a condemnatory tone, saying that she ‘can’t believe he’s gotten this far’, ‘what he says about Muslims and Mexicans is unbelievable’, and statements of that nature. Personally, I agree with her assessment, viewing Trump as deplorable and uniquely unqualified for office, but Trudy’s opposition to Mr. Trump has an element that few can so passionately and genuinely speak to.

The rhetoric of the Republican nominee does not merely disappoint her. She does not simply disagree with what he says. Trudy, whose fearlessness is as central to who her personality as her positive nature, is scared by Mr. Trump. In nearly two years of our close friendship, I have never seen her scared of anything–not when discussing her survival story, not when returning to Auschwitz, not when nearing the human ashes. Now, I hear fear in her voice. She tells me that his rhetoric brings back echoes of her darkest days. As many Jews on social media could tell you, those (((echoes))) may be louder than she even realizes. She sees a person with no regard for the democracy that has kept her safe. Examining the words of prominent policymakers and thinkers regarding Trump, paired with his chatter about a “rigged election,” her concern is widely shared. Most of all, Trudy fears what our future looks like under Mr. Trump. A nation and survivor inspired by a bright view of the future is envisioning a pessimistic view of what is to come, due to a man with an excessively negative view of the present. I see a woman of unbridled optimism praying for America to stop this man and put the resurrection of her darkest days behind her.

True, Hillary Clinton will, in all likelihood, win the presidential election. My personal enthusiasm for her is limited, as is that of many political moderates. Despite this, the current election goes beyond normal policy discussions or Hillary’s many shortcomings. This is about the survival of our republic, which has been endangered by Mr. Trump’s demagoguery. To clarify, I do not and will not make the claim that Mr. Trump is Hitler or this generation’s coming of him, because no one is Hitler. That being said, many signs of demagoguery are prevalent, and these have been noticed by Trudy, who suffered unspeakably when the German people did not oppose these signs many decades ago. A Kasich, a Bush, a Rubio, a Reagan; these men did not elicit and would not have elicited such fear from an optimist like Trudy. The rhetoric and actions of Mr. Trump, on the other hand, have brought Trudy back to the last time she personally witnessed these signs, and it is awful to look at this election through her eyes.

Senator Ted Cruz, during the Republican National Convention, urged voters to “vote their conscience.” Doubtlessly, there are moderates and conservatives reading this piece who feel it is beyond their conscience to vote for Mrs. Clinton. While your view is not without reason, and you may be considering Gary Johnson, backing a third-party candidate, rather than the candidate most likely to defeat Trump, increases the possibility of a Trump victory. Personally, my conscience dictates that when a Holocaust survivor like Trudy sees the signs of demagoguery–a man who has no particular appreciation for democracy, whose anti-Semitic and Islamophobic followers are among his most ardent, whose philosophy is “I alone can fix it,” whose respect for women is nowhere to be found, and whose proposals could disenfranchise minorities in a manner unseen in decades–I must put my weight behind the person who I feel has the best opportunity to put this march towards autocracy to rest.

While my email to Trudy pointed out that Clinton’s path to 270 Electoral College votes is more likely than Trump’s, the race has gotten significantly closer over the course of the last week. In any other election year, I would have written my email as a means of entertaining Trudy or giving her something interesting to read. Last night, she just needed something to calm her fear.

“I hope this information provides a little comfort.”

About the Author
Ben is a junior majoring in political science and economics at Washington University in St. Louis. The Arab Spring sparked a lifelong interest in geopolitics and anti-Semitism, which are the topics most frequently discussed in his pieces.
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