Since writing my three-generational novel, ODESSA, ODESSA (She Writes Press, September 11, 2018) – a novel loosely based on my family’s history–which tells the story of a religious Jewish family living in Odessa at the turn of the century, forced to abandon all they know and hold dear – country, culture, language, and often, close family members – I am more painfully aware of other individuals and groups facing comparable situations. The characters in my historical novel represent the lucky ones – those fortunate and resilient enough to scrape together the resources to make the voyage across the Atlantic and to reach the safe New York Harbor, with Lady Liberty holding up her beacon of hope and freedom. And to succeed! Six million other Jews (and gays, and Romas, and Communists and Righteous Christians) were not so fortunate.

It is with sadness that I follow the ongoing plight of the Rohingya people, the latest targets of political and ethnic violence, who Amnesty International calls “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”[1]

I view the faces of starving children, held by their helpless mothers and living in conditions no human beings should endure. I behold a photograph of ten men chained together, obliged to watch while others dig their shallow graves, and then to await the fire of their executioners’ guns. They are the outcasts, like the Jews in Russia, the African and original Americans in the United States, the Palestinians in Israel, the Dalits (untouchables) in India, the Tutsis in Rwanda, the “colored” and blacks in South Africa, and the beleaguered Syrian residents.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority forced to leave their homes in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (Burma), whose government claims they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and therefore they deprive them of their rights as citizens. After being systematically raped, murdered, and burned out of their villages,[2] a million of these men, women, and children remain homeless, stateless, destitute, and dying of cholera, diphtheria, and starvation in displacement camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Novel Peace Prize winner, has turned a deaf ear to their predicament. And the authorities quibble about whether this satisfies the definition of a genocide!

Once again, in our time, we confront a war waged against immigrants and refugees; once again, we confront combat against those fleeing injustice and prejudice from the homelands they have populated for centuries; once again we see atrocities committed against those who love and believe differently, against those who look different. I recall the words of Pastor Niemoller, who, in 1933, wrote while a prisoner in a German concentration camp:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.[3]

As an author, writing fiction, with my mighty “pen in hand,” I have the power to turn a coward into a hero, to bring insight to the uninformed, to protect the life of someone in danger, to keep a child from dying. Or not. But as an ordinary citizen, and psychoanalyst, I struggle with how to emotionally withstand the daily shootings, the wars, the devastation and displacement of strangers that I witness daily on my television screen. How do we deal with these events that threaten our sense of what it means to be human? How do we cope with our sense of helplessness? What can we do as concerned citizens to fulfill the promise made to those “poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Aren’t we all immigrants?

For now, I can only offer the symbolic image of standing on the courageous shoulders of our immigrant parents and grandparents and shouting: Not on my watch!


[2] I am reminded of Henya and Mendel, the characters in the first chapter of my novel, Odessa, Odessa, who experienced and witnessed a pogrom in their shtetl when men, women, and children were similarly ravaged.

[3] As quoted at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Jerusalem.

__

Barbara Artson is a retired psychoanalyst in San Francisco who has treated clients suffering from  trauma. She holds a PhD in psychology and both BA and MA degrees in English Literature. A descendant of  Russian immigrants who escaped the Settlement of Pale in the early 1900s, her novel Odessa, Odessa about two branches of an immigrant family will be published in September 2018.


Bookmark and Share