Non-Fiction

 

Token Jew

Kitt Wilhelm

I got my first lesson in persecution when I was four years old. My nana was combing the tangles out of my curly, waist-length hair. It was taking a very long time and I was growing antsy. Hoping to entertain myself, I began to sing, “Knots-ies knots-ies in my hair.” Tensing up, she pulled the comb out of my hair and spun the fading Raggedy Ann stool around so we sat face-to-face. In the simplest terms, she explained who the Nazis were and what they did. My four-year-old self desperately tried to comprehend the Holocaust. Barbed wire. Frightened people. Lethal showers. It was a lot to take in and it terrified me. It would be years before I understood when the Holocaust took place—I was left fearing that, at any moment, the Nazis would show up at our door to take us away like they did Aunt Lise.

 

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, more than two million Polish Jews came under German control. Hundreds of thousands of those Jews were deported to concentration camps, believing they were being taken to another ghetto. They packed up all their belongings and willingly traveled to, what would be for many, their final resting place. Aunt Lise and her family were deported when the ghetto in which they lived was liquidated; she was the sole survivor. In the first camp, she was placed in front of a firing squad and told to renounce her faith—when she refused, they moved her to Auschwitz. She dug her own grave on three separate occasions; Aunt Lise stood naked in front of a Nazi firing squad each time, only to be saved at the last minute on the basis of her appearance. For Hitler, the ideal “Aryan” was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and tall—an ideal that Aunt Lise resembled. In 1943, she immigrated to the United States after being smuggled out of Auschwitz.

 

Growing up, I attended a very small school located in rural Nebraska—there were about 1,000 people living in the town and it was not a diverse group. When I was in the fifth grade, we did a lesson on the Holocaust and Judaism. We read historical fiction based in Nazi-occupied countries, many of which my mother had already shared with me. It was the first time I had discussed the Holocaust in a classroom setting, though. I remember being shocked that not everyone was acutely aware of the Jewish plight, until I realized that it’s not a topic people often discuss if they don’t have to. It was amazing how quickly my classmates were able to make light of the situation and how desperately they wanted me to be amused by it. My best friend had white-blond hair and blue eyes—once people had a term for his appearance, they started making jokes about “the Jew and the Aryan.” If we were living through the Holocaust, he would’ve exterminated me by now. I was often asked by snickering boys if I enjoyed showering or baking—thinly-veiled allusions to gas chambers and crematoriums. During recess one day, a boy called me a “dirty Jew.” I’m not sure if he thought he was being funny or intended to be cruel, but I never told anyone about it. I worried that being called a “dirty Jew” meant that I had done something wrong. I had been a bad Jew and the thought of my mother or, worse, Nana hearing about it was more than I could bear. The antisemitism didn’t stop with my peers, though. At a birthday party, a parent told me that he didn’t believe 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; that number was chosen by the Jews to hyperbolize their plight. Tears brimmed in my eyes as I sat in a stunned silence, wondering why this was an appropriate topic of conversation at his daughter’s tenth birthday party.

 

Aunt Lise met Uncle Lou in New York—different from so many Jews, she was an immigrant, not a “guest” and was, thus, not be expected to return to Poland after the war. Like Aunt Lise, Uncle Lou was a Polish Jew, but he’d immigrated to the United States before Germany’s invasion. They married and, in 1949, had their first child. Aunt Lise gave birth to Howard on the same day that my nana was born. She shared a hospital room with Mama (Nana’s mother). My nana likes to say that Aunt Lise became an aunt by circumstance because, after the Holocaust, Jewish people gravitated toward one another. Very few countries were willing to accept so many displaced persons—Jews were emerging from concentration camps and hiding places only to discover that the world didn’t have a place for them. Hoping to guard themselves from further persecution, Jews became isolated. In a community of Jewish families, there was never a question of safety.

 

In middle school, my sixth grade class went to see Brundibár at a local theater. It was a children’s opera written before the Holocaust and smuggled into a Czechoslovakian ghetto; the opera was performed by prisoners for the propaganda film Theresienstadt and during the International Red Cross inspection of Terezín in 1944. The show was being staged at the theater where my dad worked by a touring company that had, by sheer coincidence, traveled to Omaha during our Holocaust unit. After the show, my dad introduced me to Ela Steinova Weissberger. During her time in the Terezín ghetto, Ela was chosen to play the Cat. She had traveled to Nebraska to share her story with the opera’s audience. Ela was exceptionally kind, radiating strength as she rolled up her shirtsleeve to reveal the faded, blue-black numbers. The next day, my teacher asked me to share my feelings about Ela, the opera, and the Holocaust. I remember thinking it was odd that my teachers wanted me to describe such an intimate moment, but it didn’t stop there. As winter break approached, I was asked to explain Hanukkah to classrooms full of disinterested middle schoolers. They pulled me out of study hall to describe how and why we celebrated. My hands shook as I shared my favorite traditions with the class: latkes and dreidels and menorahs and gelt. I recited the Hanukkah blessing in Hebrew, painfully aware of each phlegmy-sounding “ch.” With blood rushing to my cheeks, I read my favorite Holocaust poem aloud to a class of people that could never appreciate it in the way I hoped they would. The last, the very last, / So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow… / That butterfly was the last one. / Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto. I finished reading the poem and, holding back tears, proceeded with the question and answer portion of my presentation. I had become the token Jew and would remain the token Jew until I graduated.

 

After the Holocaust, the conservation of the Jewish race was extremely important—Jewish men were expected to marry Jewish women and vice versa. It was a practice done in the hopes of self-preservation—isolation meant protection. Papa (Nana’s father) married a Jewish woman, as he was expected to, and they had a child. Their marriage was loveless, however, and ended in divorce. Halakha (Jewish Law) allows divorce, but it’s not always recognized by Orthodox Jews. When Papa married Mama, much of his extended family declared him dead, horrified that he married a gentile woman, a practice not sanctioned by any branch of Orthodox Judaism. His ex-wife cut off all contact with him, moving away with their child. Papa always believed that, if there was only one true path to Heaven, God would not have created so many. He said the most important thing people could do was be kind.

 

In seventh grade, we read The Contender. The main character, Alfred, worked in a Jewish deli. It was around this time that the word “Jew” entered the school vocabulary as a synonym for “stingy.” Teachers used the word. Students used it. I didn’t understand why. They would continue to use “Jew” as both a noun and a verb to insult each other until I graduated high school. I couldn’t walk down the hallway without hearing “you’re such a Jew” or “you Jew-ed me.” Robert Lipsyte’s book didn’t reinforce any stereotypes about Jewish people being miserly—the Epsteins were just kind, Jewish deli owners. The Jewish deli was its own stereotype, but not a particularly harmful one. For centuries, Jews were associated with finance because they weren’t allowed to do anything else and they were some of the only people educated enough to pursue such high-paying occupations—this manifested into the harmful stereotype of the miserly Jew. In the hallways, people would flick pennies at me and place quarters on the ground, hoping to witness concrete proof of the stereotype.

 

Nana always said that, to gentile people, the Jews had an air of mysticism. They were a well-educated group which people found threatening—the Jewish prioritization of education developed from the fact that Judaism requires those that practice to be literate. As some of the most educated people, Jews abandoned agriculture for higher-paying jobs in urban areas. So, Jews don’t often farm. Aunt Lise was different, though. After the Holocaust, she and Uncle Lou moved to a cattle farm in Illinois. They joined the small percentage of Jews that still participated in agriculture. It was an odd choice, but one made in an attempt at self-preservation. Aunt Lise said that the isolation of the farm gave her a sense of security that she had not felt in more populated areas.

 

In high school, the Holocaust and Judaism were discussed with more frequency both in and out of the classroom. My freshman history class had a unit on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; on the first day, my teacher asked if anyone was Jewish. When I raised my hand he was absolutely giddy, exclaiming, “I’ve never had a Jew before!” I just smiled, unsure how to respond. It was the first time anyone had explicitly referred to me as the school’s token Jew—it would not be the last. In my English class, we were assigned Elie Wiesel’s Night, an autobiography about his survival in the Nazi death camps. My mom wanted to email my teacher—I was having vivid Holocaust nightmares and sobbing loudly in my sleep. I told her not to, though; I could handle it, just like everyone else. I refused to bring in a note from home that explicitly said I was different, that I deserved special treatment. Before we had finished the book, a classmate approached me to share her thoughts on the “satanic practices” of the Jewish people. That night, I sobbed as I asked my mom why this girl thought being Jewish meant I was a witch. I didn’t understand why people hated the Jews so much.

 

Aunt Lise always believed that it was her job, as a survivor, to share the horrifying nature of her experiences with others. She had nightmares for the rest of her life, but what scared her most was forgetting. She feared that, if survivors weren’t open about their experiences, it would happen again. The persistence of anti-Semitism throughout history did not make it a natural occurrence and talking about its effects was the only way to put a stop to it. Half of the people in the world have never heard of the Holocaust and a third of the people that have heard of it don’t believe it happened. Worse still, are the deniers. They believe the Holocaust was constructed by Jewish people in an effort to advance their interests. By sharing her story, Aunt Lise was not only disputing these claims but combatting the denier’s subversion of history.

 

My sophomore year of high school, I learned that a Jewish boy from a nearby town had been force-fed pennies by his classmates. When the story reached Louisville, I was shocked by its reception. People laughed—they found humor in the assault of this 14-year-old boy. In a way, this blatantly anti-Semitic act seemed to justify the “softer” anti-Semitism practiced in Louisville. They could draw swastikas on my books, heil Hitler as I passed, and slide hateful notes across my desk because they weren’t treating my mouth like a change purse. It justified their acts in my mind as well—suddenly what seemed hateful for so long had become a silly joke in comparison. I was Jewish and being Jewish meant being a target—that was the norm and had been for centuries. They would joke about how lucky I was that nobody had thought to force-feed me pennies and I would nod, chuckling nervously. I was lucky.

 

While in college, Nana’s son decided to get a tattoo—a decision made without his mother’s knowledge or approval. Nana didn’t like tattoos—most Jews don’t. It was a long-held belief that, if tattooed, a person couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery (bet shalom)—the practice violates the Torah, but is not grounds for expulsion from the Temple. Of course, Nana’s apprehension toward tattoos went much deeper than her faith. During the Holocaust, Jews with tattoos were often killed so their skin could be used to create artifacts: lampshades, wallets, gloves. The Bitch of Buchenwald was particularly fond of this practice, killing tattooed Jews then forcing other prisoners to create the artifacts. Nana knew this and didn’t want to give anti-Semites anymore reason to target her family.

 

I didn’t meet another Jewish person until college—a remarkable feat as William Jewell only had about five Jews. I remained a token, but I was no longer isolated in my tokenism. I gravitated toward Elliott and Johanna; the three of us formed our own microcosm of Jewish culture, jokingly calling ourselves the William Jews. We ate honey and apples in celebration of Rosh Hashana, a holiday marked by Snapchat filters unappreciated by the world’s gentile population. Gathering to watch the newest episode of Broad City became a weekly practice; we’d laugh until tears ran down our faces as Abbi and Ilana (two proud Jewesses) found themselves in hysterical situations. On Sundays, we’d carpool to Meshuggah for real Jewish bagels—a treat that evoked fond memories of eating real bagels with my family (as self-proclaimed bagel snobs, it was the only type we ever bought). Our gentile friends joined us for all of this and more, eager to partake in our—sometimes muted—celebrations of Jewish culture. We were still tokens, but tokens with value.

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