I grew up smelling the smoke of the Holocaust.
Born in 1946, the trauma of Hitler’s genocide was implanted in my marrow, long before I had cognition to understand it.
I grew up in safety and privilege. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood. The quota systems from before the war had largely gone away. The best public schools were free to go to. There would be no bar from society to keep me from going to college, to medical school. All Americans were eating bagels. We were accepted.
But I never felt entirely safe, knowing that Jewish German citizens who were loyal to their country, who had even won medals of valor fighting for Germany in World War I, were not safe, that their government and neighbors turned on them, pronounced them as “the other,” the “enemy,” and sent them to their deaths in concentration camps.
Unconsciously, to protect myself from my fears, I clung to a specific point of grammar. I was a Jewish American, not an American Jew. That may sound like splitting hairs, but it was extremely important to me. Being defined as a Jew implied nationality or even race. Accepting a definition as a Jew meant that we could be labeled as not quite Americans, as outsiders, as “the other.” Such labeling is what led to anti-Semitism at best, and genocide at worst.
Then came 1963. My unconscious protection fell apart when, during a visit to Israel, I met Father Daniel, a Carmelite monk who was born Jewish in Poland. Father Daniel came to my attention in the late 1950s when the American press reported his efforts to emigrate to Israel under the Knesset’s Law of Return, which stated that any Jew who immigrated to Israel would be granted immediate citizenship.
The idea was preposterous. A Catholic priest, wanted to be admitted to the state of Israel as a Jew returning to his ancestral homeland. I was prepared to sneer and scoff, until he started to speak. Dressed in his priest’s cassock, a large cross hanging around his neck, he nonetheless, sounded exactly like my grandmother — Jewish to the core.
My beliefs shaken, I sought opinions to bring clarity to me. My cousin, Ita, a Holocaust survivor, was certain Father Daniel was Jewish — because Hitler would have killed him.
“If Hitler had captured Father Daniel, he would have had him killed as a Jew," Ita told me. "If Hitler is going to kill you because he believes you are Jewish, that makes you Jewish!”
The Israel Supreme Court, while acknowledging that the Israeli Knesset in passing the Law of Return deliberately failed to define what a Jew is, given the wide diversity of people who claim to be Jewish, held that Father Daniel wasn’t Jewish because he aligned himself with Christianity, a faith that had historically persecuted Jews. If Father Daniel had instead converted to Buddhism or Hinduism, faiths which had no historical anti-Semitic biases, the court would very likely have granted Father Daniel’s request. How ironic that two opposing views of what constitutes “Jewishness” were ultimately based on anti-Semitism.
Which brings us to today.
On Aug. 23, four prominent Jewish citizens of Utah, felt compelled to write an commentary published in The Salt Lake Tribune titled, “Charging Jews with disloyalty is playing with fire,” defending the loyalty to America of Jewish citizens that was being challenged by President Trump as well as other white supremacists nationally.
The hatreds, the fear of “the other,” so prevalent in the United States before World War II and even after, as I was growing up, have not gone away. Indeed, the current president of the United States stokes the passions of his base by feeding those hatreds and prejudices.
From the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, the motto of the United States has been E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, one. I dream of the day that great motto becomes the natural and obvious reality of the United States, when American citizens of every religion, every ethnic origin, are defined as loyal Americans, based solely on their embrace of the true American values espoused by and fought for by our founding fathers (and mothers), and so beautifully described by President Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Michael Kalm, M.D., is a psychiatrist, who, in his 44 years of private practice in Utah, has felt privileged to treat patients of every religion, of every ethnicity, based on their commonality as human beings who were suffering.