Photo credit: Michael Palmieri
When I was about five years old, a stray white cat with a scratch on his nose showed up at our back door in California. We named him Charlie. Charlie hung around for a few days, eating and sleeping and taking swipes at us every once in a while, and during that time I remember asking my mom where the scratch on his nose had come from.
“From a man named Hitler,” she said.
That probably sounds like a non sequitur, but in my house it didn’t seem that strange. Another conversation of that era went something like this: “Michael is such a faggot!” “Do you know what the word faggot means, Jonathan?” “No.” (Though I had an idea.) “‘Dirty Jew.’ It means ‘dirty Jew.’ That’s what you’re saying when you call someone a faggot. Always remember that.”
I lived in what you’d call an extremely liberal household, a bastion of brown rice, Persian rugs, and Dr. Spock permissiveness, where all prejudice and violence, no matter how small-bore, somehow led back to the death camps. My grandfather was a survivor, and thus any utterance of hatred or meanness evoked the hatred and meanness that had enslaved him in Auschwitz, and in this way, he became the conduit for any larger sense of history and politics that entered our home. The numbers on his arm, though not often discussed, were an object of near reverence, and even more, a kind of skeleton key to the ultimate level of social reality as it persisted in American life all around us.
“There are still people who would throw you in ovens,” my mom would say. “They’d do it again in a second. You’d better believe it.”
Much of my life has been spent looking for those Nazis, those neighbors and friends-of-friends who’d gas me given a chance. Who on my block would do such a thing? Who might reveal those depths of hatred and cruelty? For that matter, who’d just look the other way when the SS came knocking? Over the years I judged the fathers at the pool parties, the mothers in their Lycra running togs, my classmates who couldn’t be bothered to understand jack shit about history. Over time, I came to realize that potential-Nazis were a pretty commonplace type, regular folks cut from the same cloth as the lumpen mob members, middle-class know-nothings, and corporate profiteers that constituted the German populace circa 1933. Given the proper context, many, many Americans could plausibly bloom into Brownshirts.
My grandfather was a survivor, and thus any utterance of hatred or meanness evoked the hatred and meanness that had enslaved him in Auschwitz.
My grandfather died a few years ago, and I wrote a novel, Freebird
, as a way of contemplating his legacy — how his life-experience shaped the morality and wholesale identity of those who came after. The Holocaust as metaphor was the motivating idea, and specifically how that metaphor continues to play out in the theater of contemporary American politics. I wanted to get at how the increasingly distant event remains central to almost any understanding of ideology today, neoliberal and neoconservative alike, and yet how the lessons drawn from the event often lead in almost diametrically opposite directions. Zionism, the New Left, the NRA all place the Holocaust at the cornerstone of their conceptual foundations but find wildly different villains, heroes, and modern-day threats in the story. My book tries to project that confusion into a single family, with plot lines involving water rights, forgotten gold, and violent, public death. (How’s that for salesmanship?)
In the years since writing the book, the world has taken a truly ugly, fascistic turn. In far distant lands, deranged men have created a caliphate based on the destruction of human history and human life. Closer to home, a coalition of ignorant, self-pitying, and craven assholes have installed a transcendent asshole as president. Are they Nazis for doing that? They’d deny it, of course. But then again, the Germans all thought they were pretty decent, misunderstood people, too. Watching Trump assemble his Himmlers and Goerings, his Rick Perrys and Michael Flynns, promising his Muslim registries, threatening his opponent with jail, I’m thinking a lot about my mom’s fairy tale warnings these days. For so many years, the threat seemed so abstract. Reagan, Bush, they had their leanings, and one could always theorize malign doctrine into almost anything, but during those years it began to seem possible that the full fever might never come back, at least not on this continent anyway. If nothing else, everyone just seemed too lazy and distracted to kill their neighbors in anything resembling a programmatic way.
But today, who knows? Assuming the people who think Obama is a Muslim and climate change is a hoax keep getting their way, we are driving into the woods. They are energized, and they are insane. The way I see it, it’s up to my fellow Americans to prove me wrong at this point. As of now, I’m assuming everything I heard as a kid is true: the Nazis are here, living among us, Uber-ing around town, ordering their LeBron Soldier 10s online, politely queuing up to see Rogue One
at the local Regal multiplex. We know who they are, even if they don’t know themselves.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of three novels, Rain Dragon
, The Half-Life
, and Freebird
, and the short story collection Livability
. His work has appeared in Tin House
, The Village Voice
, and other places. He lives in Portland, Oregon.