Goodbye to Time

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As a result of President Trump's "zero-tolerance policy," thousands of immigrant children have been detained and separated from their parents for indefinite periods.

Detention centers for the children of immigrants have again raised the specter of the Holocaust in mainstream civic discourse. As a Jewish-American with a strong sense of cultural identity and an even stronger belief that what’s past is prologue, I have frequently wondered what my relationship and responsibility to the reemergence of these images should be, whether it’s tiki-torched white nationalists shouting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville or swastikas raised at rallies in criticism of the current administration.
In response to this question, I’m reminded of a recent reading of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the graphic novel about his father Vladek’s survival from the outbreak of the war through his time at Auschwitz. The work brings together a past of unimaginable physical and psychological torment and present-day New York where an elderly Vladek bears witness to his son.
In one scene, Art and his wife, Francoise, wait in the car as Vladek enters a supermarket to return several opened but unfinished boxes of food. The two are mortified by this attempt. But they know it’s useless to intervene. On the way to the store, Art and Francoise had listened as the old man continued his story of the camps. His survival was a miracle, says Francoise as they watch Vladek arguing with the manager through the store window, to which Art responds: “But in some ways he didn’t survive.”
 Vladek’s miserliness, his fear of deprivation, his compulsive attention to every crumb and each penny, these things are evidence that he lives his present as the Shoah’s suffocating aftermath. The Third Reich took away Vladek’s peace of mind, his trust in others, and his faith in the future. In this way, the death sentence he received is still being carried out. Somewhere inside him persists the terrified belief that society’s next apocalyptic war, its next great moral and material collapse, waits around every corner.
In volume two of Maus, which takes place after the successful release of volume one and covers Vladek’s year at Auschwitz, we find Art slumped over his writing desk, which sits atop a mountain of Jewish corpses attended by a few errant flies. Despondent over the relentless marketing of Maus as well as the failure of his art to adequately address his father’s experience, he finds himself in a paralyzing depression. Spiegelman goes to his shrink, Pavel, to work it out. “No matter what I accomplish,” he tells Pavel, “it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz.”
As I read these lines, I had a troubling realization. The feeling they describe had played in the background of my thoughts like a white noise I’d become so accustomed to hearing, I was deaf to it. Like Spiegelman, I was guilty of not having survived Auschwitz. I was guilty of having come along too late to endure the persecution of my ancestors. I was guilty of having been absent from their Pale of Settlement exile. Of having enjoyed a life of peace and privilege instead of the violence of the pogroms. I was guilty of having had a stable home, a family, a future, and a life.
A few nights earlier, I told my girlfriend about a habit of mine when encountering a work of Holocaust film or literature. I’d project myself into the place of the Jews, wondering if I could withstand the degradation of the camps, the nights crammed into freezing transports with nothing to eat nor room to sleep, the forced marches in the snow, shoeless and without winter clothes, the fear of instant death in the barracks or ghetto, the hard labor and slow starvation.
Did she do the same, I asked, when reading about the Great Leap Forward? My girlfriend is Chinese on her mother’s side, and she’d been researching this government-engineered atrocity in which tens of millions of people died of famine between 1958-62, maybe even some of her ancestors in Hokshan where her grandmother grew up.
No, she said, not really.
I realized I’d been affected more than I knew by the relentless barrage of Holocaust-themed books, movies, and memorials to which the culture had subjected me over the years. As a response, perhaps, I’d developed a question I asked myself when meeting someone new: Would this person hide me? This meant the following: If I were a Jew in Nazi Europe, would this person conceal me in their shed or attic? Would they have the strength to exercise their humanity by acknowledging my own in circumstances that forbid it with lethal consequences?
This question was absurd, comical. But it had a purpose-or so I thought: to gauge the moral character of the individual at which it was directed. I can see now that it was an unconscious attempt to transfer the burden of this historical violence onto someone else, to escape the accusation, blame, and second-hand trauma that accompanied it.
That is, my question was also an expression of guilt. It not only asserted that I should fear the Jewish suffering I saw portrayed, but that I might anticipate it-and maybe I deserved it. If to be Jewish, as these images told me, meant to be afflicted with this violence, in order to truly inhabit my Jewishness, I had to suffer my share of persecution, which I had avoided through no effort of my own, but only by virtue of having been born in the right time and place.
In this way, I accused myself on behalf of victim and oppressor of having escaped the punishment that was my birthright. By asking this question, in fact, I became my own oppressor, internalizing the subliminal messages of anti-Jewishness conveyed in these depictions.
It wasn’t the representations of the Holocaust that created this effect; they were intended to critique the racism on display by revealing the perverse inhumanity of the camps. It was their positive reception by the larger culture that taught me to see myself as a member of one of history’s most compelling victims.
This was often not the fault of the artists, particularly those who were survivors, but due in large part to the acclaim these portrayals attracted. People seemed to love seeing Jews get killed, offering to these prolific images of shocking death endless rounds of misty-eyed applause, not to mention the most distinguished literary and cinematic awards. And when they got tired of the Holocaust genre, it was because we were too often asserting the victimhood we learned to display as proof of our identity.
But in asking my question-Would they hide me?-of what did I accuse myself if not history? Succumbing to its judgment, I confessed without hesitation to a crime I hadn’t committed.
I was trying to save myself from an historical violence. But I perpetuated this violence in a different form, judging another for its crimes while implicating myself with guilt.
Instead of the juridical enterprise my question makes of the past, can it be reconceived as an engagement with a present both mutable and wise? Rather than a spectral substance flowing mysteriously around us, can it be thought of as an act of imagination rooted in the search for oneself in the world?
Can it be a site of renewal? A tearing down of the walls raised in its name? Can it free me from a colonized self-image? Can it be an occasion not for recrimination but self-examination, not a matter of politics but of principle, not a movement external to oneself but in and of the individual?
What I ask of time, though, I should also ask of myself. Not: Would they hide me? But: Would I have hidden Vladek Spiegelman in Sosnowiec, Poland 1943? Would I hide them?
In present day United States with regard to the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, this inquiry might take a slightly different route. Instead of assuring myself that the children of immigrants are being temporarily detained and not incinerated, that it can’t happen here, I might acknowledge the slippery slope such policies have set nations on in the past. It starts with the stoking of nationalist sentiment, the scapegoating of vulnerable populations, the leader who convinces a people it has been robbed of power and dignity and must reclaim these things at any civic expense. Then come the laws that incrementally erode the human rights of minority groups, from which all else follows. The question here might be: Does history take place in the mouths of politicians and the halls of congress or the ordinary lives of citizens, in living rooms and offices and on the streets we walk every day? And then: Will I face the other before it’s too late?
In these new queries, I turn to regard those at risk. I reflect on their lives. I search the corners of my being for these individuals, taking into account that which is inadmissible to official versions of history: their pain, their suffering, their fears, their future.
What I ask of time, though, I should demand of myself. Not an acquittal or indictment. Not a rebuttal or reprieve. Not mercy or retaliation-only a question that draws me toward the other and therefore in the direction of my own humanity.
This question might be called hope.
Adam Fagin is the author ofFurthest Ecology,forthcoming February 2019 fromthe Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. His essay is from his next book,Fagin the Jew, whichdeals with the history of Cotopaxi, a 19th-century Jewish agricultural colony in Colorado, and the intersection of personal and social identity.