Thinking About Wearing My Jewish Star Necklace
It’s been more than a year since we moved across the country, but there are still boxes that I haven’t unpacked. Last weekend I came across a delicate bubble-wrapped packet inside a small jewelry box. When I pulled back the tape and unfolded the bubble-wrap, out fell a tiny gleaming Star of David on a slender silver chain. Made of iridescent glass, it shimmered when I moved it back and forth.
My first thought was, I’ll wear this today.
My second thought was, Maybe I shouldn’t.
My father was a Holocaust refugee. Born in Vienna in 1919, he was 18 years old at the time of the Anschluss, when the Nazis annexed Austria and, as my dad always put it, the Austrians “welcomed them with open arms.” In the early days after the occupation, the Nazis were eager to get the Jews out, encouraging them to leave the country with only pocket change, in the hopes that they’d become a burden on the neighboring countries’ economies and thereby strengthen the Nazi cause. Many Jewish families stayed, thinking the situation would eventually improve. Thanks to the foresight of my dad’s mother, he and his immediate family – parents, stepparents, and grandparents – left. His beloved uncle was caught up in a raid and died in a concentration camp.
I write this on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, that fateful night in 1938, when Nazis destroyed hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, as well as thousands of Jewish homes and businesses. It’s named for the shards of glass that littered the streets from all the broken windows. It’s thought of as the true beginning of the Holocaust, although in many ways it began much earlier. Sometimes, when I think of the terrible complicated beauty of this world, I imagine a pale sunrise glimmering on all those fragments of broken lives.
I’ve thought a lot about Nazi Germany over the past couple of years, as I’ve watched the rise of a dangerous demagogue in my own country. When children were being separated from their parents and held in cages at our Southern border, I wrote the following in my journal:
Today on Instagram I saw a photo of a man holding a sign that said, “I didn’t move here from Germany to watch you build camps.” And all at once I knew the answer to the question of how ordinary Germans could sit by and watch their neighbors disappear: They were busy. And they didn’t know what to do. Sure, some of them supported it, some didn’t care, but no doubt many hated it. They sat at their dinner tables and whispered about the maniacal idiot who’d taken charge of their country, and his ugly little moustache, and his stupid salutes and hateful speech. Perhaps they laughed about it, to relieve the tension, and seethed about it, and maybe even cried about it, but they talked about other things too, because they felt powerless, yes, and also because they had children and work and the endless drama of daily life to attend to, and you can’t think about these things all the time or you’ll lose your mind. No doubt this is what happened, because this is what’s happening now, as children are dragged from their parents at our borders, as our democracy is dismantled piece by piece, and we go about our lives.
Of course it terrified me to write this, and the very act of having written it spurred me to a flurry of petition-signing and letter-writing and donation-making, but there it was, there was that thought.
What’s also true is that Germans at that time were at far greater risk than we are now in terms of their ability to take action. Speaking out against their government led to imprisonment in those same concentration camps where Jews were being slaughtered. To stand in opposition, they had to be extremely careful, and extremely brave, far braver than we do now.
When I was a child, I sometimes had dreams in which I was being chased by Nazis, and I showed up on the doorstep of various friends and neighbors asking them to hide me. Sometimes they took me in, sometimes they turned me away. I imagined at the time that my dreams were telling me something about the character of the individuals I dreamed about—who was a real friend to me and who wasn’t.
But what would any of us do, in that situation, really? No matter what we want to think about our own character, we can never truly know until it happens. And what if we have children? That takes it to a whole other level. Because when you have children, your actions don’t just affect you, they affect them as well. If you put yourself in danger, you put them in danger. This complicates the moral question a thousand fold. It’s one thing to be brave and risk your own life. It’s something else to risk another’s.
Maybe that’s why, when a man my father knew in Kansas, who’d been an officer in the German army, got drunk at a party and cried and begged my father’s forgiveness for things he’d done during the war, my father forgave him. They remained friends, although this man’s presence at my Bat Mitzvah caused a member of our Jewish community never to speak to my father again.
I thought of all this as I held that tiny, lustrous Jewish star in my hand. It was a Saturday. It had been a mere two weeks since the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which eleven people were gunned down simply for being Jewish. I was heading out for the day’s activities with my children in tow. Did I have the right to endanger their lives?
I took the necklace into the bathroom and held it to my throat, facing the mirror. It caught the light and burned bright. To my eye, it was as conspicuous as a giant yellow star pinned to my lapel. And why did they have us wear those stars? I thought. So they would know who we are. Because we have a tactical advantage over many other ethnic minorities in that respect. The bigots can’t always recognize us by looking.
I believe in standing up for what’s right. I believe in defending the underdog and addressing injustice when I see it. But I asked myself what I’d be standing up for by wearing the necklace that day. For me it’s a remembrance of my father, who bought it for me, and of my ancestry. It’s not a religious statement, nor is it an endorsement of the actions of the Israeli government. It’s a cultural and emotional touchstone, a celebration of all who came before.
Those things are important, I thought, but are they important enough to endanger my children? If someone saw me wearing that necklace and shot me, and perhaps them, because of it, would it have been worth it? On the other hand, did my father survive the Holocaust so his daughter would fear to acknowledge who she is?
The town I live in is a liberal bubble in a purple state. The chances of anything happening to me here as a result of my wearing that necklace are minuscule. Far less than, say, that of a Black man driving a in a white neighborhood in just about any American city. Nevertheless, I set it aside.
I often feel that I’m smarter when I’m writing. The motion of my fingers creates a kind of alchemy that clears the fog from my brain. Maybe that’s why, at this moment, I see another reason to wear the necklace: as a show of solidarity for the fallen, not just those who were killed in the synagogue shooting, but for all people, everywhere, who are persecuted simply for being who they are. As an act of defiance in the face of bigotry, a statement that hate won’t win.
Maybe I’m not just smarter when I’m writing. Maybe I’m braver too.
I didn’t wear the necklace that day. Today I think I will.
Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” This is also true for me. Is it true for you? Find out in my off-leash writing workshops. Four-week online sessions start November 19 (we’ll skip Nov. 26), live session starts Nov. 28. Learn more about the process or register here. You can also join my email list to stay up to date on future blog posts and workshops.