Growing up in a Jewish household in the 1970s, we often talked about what it must have been like to be a Jew in Germany just before the Holocaust, wondering how they could have stayed there as the persecution increased.
The Holocaust and World War II were so present to us in my childhood. When I turned 10 years old in 1980, an Auschwitz survivor who had been 15 when the camps were liberated was only 50.
We had survivors at our synagogue, Tree of Life, in Columbia, South Carolina. On High Holy days, when the weather was sweltering and the air conditioners could not keep up, these living testaments would wear short sleeves and we kids gaped at tattooed arms.
We had the dead of our extended families, the siblings and children and cousins who stayed in Europe while our forebears came to America. Why did they not come?
And so we had the phrase, in my house and among my friends, “like a Jew in Berlin in 1936!”
It could be used to make a serious point, wondering how people could have been so oblivious, or wondering whether they knew but simply could not get out. Why, we wondered, did they think the next terrible thing would not happen?
And, because anything that can become familiar can become funny, and humor is as central to Jewish culture as education and persecution, the phrase could also be humorous. A friend whose girlfriend lied to him and cheated on him for years before breaking his heart was “like a Jew in Berlin in 1936!” unable to see what was so obviously coming. So was a new-to-poker uncle who, oblivious to the opponent’s four exposed spades, called a huge bet with a pair of aces and was crushed by a flush.
I have spent my life thinking about being a Jew in Berlin in 1936, weeping over it, joking about it, wondering why they didn’t leave.
And now my wife and daughter and friends, we ask each other how we will know when it is time to leave the United States.
Under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the chances of a fascistic takeover and a loss of democratic freedoms is now “non-zero.” When the president openly undermines elections, courts, mores and institutions, and sows strife, and unidentified government agents attack peaceful protesters, attention must be paid. But must bags be packed?
How would we survive in other countries? What nation would take us? Our house is here, our friends, our lives, our (recent) histories. And can it really get that bad, here?
I always heard that one reason these Jews stayed is because they thought it was their country, too, and they loved it and the life it had given them. And lately I wonder less about why the Jews in Berlin did not leave.
Because I know I won’t leave the United States, because it is my country and because my vision of it, as a free, diverse, democratic and kind nation, is the right vision.
So the question is not “How will we know when to leave?” because those of us who love a free America and hate what is happening to it must stay. And the question is not “How will we know when to fight?” because the answer is “always,” with words and votes and activism.
And the question we hope never comes: “How will we know when the words and votes and peaceful activism are not enough, that even more is needed?”
The fear is not that we won’t know. It’s that we won’t act.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.