I didn’t think I’d be writing you again from Europe. We were supposed to be home in New York tonight, but our morning flight from Düsseldorf to London was canceled, setting in motion the series of travel changes that landed us here, in the Hilton Gatwick, where we’re spending the night before catching tomorrow afternoon the only flight to the northeastern United States on which I could find us seats. My wife is sleeping. My son is stretched out on his bed, allowing whatever’s playing through his earbuds to block out the world around him. He will, from the way his eyelids are drooping, be asleep soon. We were in Düsseldorf to visit cousins my wife hadn’t seen in thirty years. It was a lovely, low-key visit, filled with a quiet joy that, in its way, was more moving than the crowded, high-energy time we spent in Sweden. We stayed with my wife’s uncle and his wife, sleeping in their living room on guest mattresses that were more comfortable than I would have expected. I slept really well, which I normally don’t if I have to sleep on the floor, but I did not dream while we were there until last night, and it’s my dream that I want to tell you about.
Our flight had not been canceled (of course!), and so, in my dream, we arrived at JFK as planned, at around six or so in the evening, except instead of having to call the long-term parking facility to send a shuttle to pick us up, we were greeted by the rebbe I told you about in an earlier letter, the one who always warned about “the goyim next door.” He greeted only me, as if my wife and son were not there, shaking my hand warmly and piling our bags onto a single cart. In real life, we needed two. Then he wheeled the cart out to a beat-up old Pacer that was the same color as the one my mother drove when I was in his class. Once we were seated, all three of us in the back, he turned to face me, and I suddenly felt like he and I really were the only two people in the car. “So you went to Germany,” he said. “What did you think of Auschwitz?”
I woke up before I could tell him not only that we didn’t go to Auschwitz; but also that we didn’t see a single Holocaust memorial while we were there. Not that we didn’t think about it. My wife asked her cousin on the first day of our visit about going to Düsseldorf’s “Memorial to the Victims of the Nazi Regime,” but her cousin resisted. “The memorial is very difficult to see,” she said. “Why bring that kind of sadness into this reunion?” Instead, she offered to show us the stolpersteine that have been placed around her city, though time constraints and the rhythm of our visit ultimately made it impossible for her to do so.
The stolpersteine—the word means “stumbling blocks”—are the project of German artist Gunter Demnig: small, cobblestone-sized, brass memorial plaques placed in the sidewalk in front of the last residence freely chosen by a person who either fell victim to the Nazis or escaped Nazi persecution through emigration or suicide. Each plaque is inscribed with the name and significant life dates–birth, deportation, death–of the person being memorialized. While most of the stolpersteine have been placed for Jews, Demnig has also included in his memorial people from all groups persecuted by the Nazis, including the Romani, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Christian opposition, disabled people, and Black people. More than 50,000 stolpersteine have been laid in at least 18 European countries, making them the largest decentralized memorial in the world. I don’t want to romanticize what the stolpersteine represent or over-celebrate their scope, but it speaks volumes to me that so many communities across Europe have agreed to bear witness to, and in that way hold themselves accountable for, what the Nazis did.
Consider a white artist—as far as I know, Denmig is not Jewish—trying to pursue a similar project regarding slavery in the United States. Even setting aside the differing circumstances and practical considerations that might make a project like that impossible, it’s hard for me to imagine white America saying yes in the same way that those European communities have. We are, after all, a nation in which someone like Bill O’Reilly feels authorized to “fact check” on national TV First Lady Michelle Obama’s statement about the White House having been built by slaves; in which it took the mass murder Dylan Roof committed in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, with the explicit intention of starting a race war, for legislators finally to vote the Confederate flag off of South Carolina’s state house; in which far too many white people cannot accept the simple assertion that Black lives matter as anything other than the at least implicit claim that other lives don’t.
In such a nation, how many communities would be willing to be reminded daily, as they walked to work or school, or down the block for a quart of milk or a sandwich from the deli, or to take out the garbage or go to the movies, or church, or shul, or to meet a lover for a date—how many communities in the United States do you think would say yes to a memorial that asked them to confront not slavery in the aggregate, difficult and meaningful and necessary as that is, but the names and dates, the lived lives of the particular enslaved Black people who played a role in that community’s history? There’s no way to answer this question, of course, but I can, as I am sure you can, picture the kind of resistance such a project would run into across wide swaths of the country, not to mention in the right wing media. To put it simply, we are a nation in which white people tend to work very hard not only not to take responsibility for the historical fact of slavery, but also not to be held accountable for the ways in which we continue to benefit from its aftermath.
I confess that writing the word “we” in that last sentence gave me pause. Not because I don’t mean it. I do. I fully recognize that because of my skin color I benefit from the continued white male dominance of our society, whether I want to or not. Nonetheless, I can’t help but also know that while slavery was being practiced in the United States, my great and great-great and great-great-great grandparents were figuring out how to survive the pogroms of Eastern Europe and were subjected to many of the same kinds of discrimination and persecution that Black people have experienced in the U.S. My history, in other words—our history, yours and mine, and even that Jewish academic’s—is not the history of Anglo-European white people. Neither has my experience growing up in the United States been one of unadulterated white privilege. The boys who called me Heeb and threw rocks at me when I walked in the neighborhood; who burglarized my home and carved Kike into the wood of my bedroom door; who, with chains and a baseball bat, backed me up against a wall on a not-deserted street in the town where I grew up to scream at the top of their lungs about the oven they said they had waiting for me and my family in their basement; the people who walked by when that was happening and did nothing–every single one of them was white, almost certainly Christian, and not one of them saw my white skin as demanding even the mildest form of racial solidarity.
It’s not that I feel the need to say, “I may look white but…” every time the question of white privilege comes up, but I have become very conscious of how rarely the contingent nature of my access to that privilege is acknowledged. Ironically, the white supremacists from whom Donald Trump has drawn so much support know exactly what I am talking about. They have always linked whiteness to Christianness, excluding Jews from whiteness by definition. If Trump wins…well, I really don’t want to think about that right now.
A cheerful note to close on, I know, but we have a long day tomorrow and I need to sleep. I’ll take this up again once I’m home.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is a poet, essayist, and co-translator of classical Persian poetry. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), and three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. www.richardjnewman.com