S. Lee Manning: Something wicked has crawled out of a box where it has been locked up. Something evil has dressed itself up in Sunday best and is strolling down Main Street, smiling and nodding, as if everything were normal. Something ugly is sunning itself on top of the rocks, when it used to hide under them.
We Rogues write thrillers. Our heroes fight evil head-on. They fight serial killers and mass murderers, villains who kidnap, villains who torture, villains who use drones to attack innocent people, villains who use poison or bombs. Our heroes sometimes fight against long odds. They are women and men, using their intelligence and their skills to win the day. My protagonist Kolya faces down those who intend to do harm to others. He’s a lot tougher than I am (maybe because he’s imaginary), and despite the odds, he wins the day, fighting with guns and fists.
But this isn’t fiction. It is real. Something truly wicked has crawled out of the box.
And it feels personal. People who don’t know me want to kill me, my children, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. People who know nothing about us – except one thing.
We are Jewish.
My father’s mother had to hide under a table in Russia when Cossacks fired guns into her home because she was Jewish. She fled for the United States soon after, as did all of my grandparents – fleeing anti-Jewish violence that had been sanctioned by the Russian government. In America, they found a home, and they knew they were safe.
Some of the family stayed behind – thinking they could make it through the bad times, and they didn’t want to lose their homes. Those cousins and great aunts and uncles wrote letters to my grandparents and my aunts and uncles until sometime between 1941 and 1943 when men in black uniforms with swastikas rolled into the region and rounded them up. My relatives were stripped naked, marched to the edge of a pit called Babi Yar, and machine-gunned.
I grew up knowing about the Holocaust. I knew that people wanted to kill Jews for no other reason than that they had been born Jewish. I knew they would have killed me and my parents. But that was in Europe. It was far away and long ago.
There have always been Nazis, anti-Semites, and white supremacists in the United States. For the most part, over the last 30 years, they stayed hidden in cellars, writing little manifestos to a handful of people. I knew they were there, but I never considered them a real threat. Yes, there was prejudice and bigotry, but it was not openly proclaimed or celebrated. This ideology was done – except for a few nutcases.
I live in America – and I love this country. My wonderful husband is not Jewish. Raising our children, we celebrated Christmas and Hanukah, Easter and Passover. It might seem confusing, but it worked.
But something ugly is sunning itself on the rocks.
Last Saturday, a Nazi shot and murdered eleven people for the crime of being Jewish – elderly people, a doctor who treated AIDS patients when no once else would, two disabled brothers who always greeted people with a smile.
After he was wounded and captured, this gunman said, “I just want to kill Jews.”
The ideology behind Nazism and white supremacy, that one group is superior and others subhumans to be dominated or eradicated, an ideology of hate is no longer the province of a few nutcases holed up in cellars. And let me be clear – while the man who murdered innocent people in a synagogue may have indeed been unbalanced, the people who perpetrated the Holocaust were coldly and ruthlessly sane believers – and they coldly and methodically plotted the extermination of every Jewish man, woman, and child in Europe – failing only because they lost the war. People again believe in that ideology, and they are no longer hiding.
In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent over the previous year, and that previous year had been a record high. In 2017, men carried swastikas and chanted “Jews Shall Not Replace Us.” Jews are less than two percent of the population of America, but they are the targets of half of all hate crimes in New York.
The generation that experienced the Holocaust is disappearing: the Americans who liberated the camps and the survivors, who have told their stories. My uncle Leon, who died five years ago, lost his mother and his sister to the gas chambers of Auschwitz – and spent his teenage years taking bodies from the gas chambers to the crematorium. The family knows his story – as does the family of every Holocaust survivor – although the children will have to carry the stories forward. But now there are people who deny the Holocaust even occurred.
For Halloween, a man dressed up as an SS officer and dressed his child as Hitler – and then insisted he is merely a history buff – while his wife posted on Facebook: “There is no objective proof of the six million Jews he supposedly murdered.”
In Vermont, where I live, Jewish middle school children have found swastikas carved on desks. Swastikas have been painted on the side of barns up here. On the University of Vermont campus, white nationalist posters are appearing. On Wednesday, a California synagogue was defaced with the words, “Fuck Jews.” On Thursday, someone broke into a reform temple in Brooklyn and painted “Kill the Jews” inside, causing the temple to cancel an election event – out of fear for their safety.
We thriller writers know – because we write about ugly things and evil people – that evil has to be fought. Our heroes know it, and they fight, even at great personal cost, even at the risk of their own lives, against bad odds. They are sometimes injured, physically and emotionally, but they know when something wicked is strolling down Main Street, and they go for it.
Something evil is strutting its stuff, and we have to fight.
But the fight looks a little different than the fights in our books – because there is no ultimate show-down with the bad guy. There is no one person to kill – and order will be restored. There is an idea – that we thought had been shoved into a box and under the rocks – that has wormed its way out. It is the idea behind Nazism and white supremacy: the idea that one group is superior and that others are inferiors to be exterminated or enslaved. Jews are not the only targets of this ideology, other groups, other peoples are victims and targets – the LGBTQ community, people of color. I am writing about Jews, however, because I am Jewish, and eleven Jews just died for being Jewish at the hands of a man spouting Nazi hate. We have to fight this evil– and we have to fight with the most powerful of weapons.
Love – and kindness.
I am heartened by the outpouring of love. My tiny synagogue in Stowe, Vermont was packed last weekend at an interfaith service. Christians, Jews, atheists, all coming together to express solidarity against hate. A Muslim organization has raised almost $200,000 for the victims and their families.
It’s not a fight that will end soon – or maybe ever. We will never totally destroy hate or the ideology that nurtures it. But like the heroes in our books, when we see evil, we have to fight it – even if it’s a quiet, long, and sometimes frustrating fight. Together, with love and with kindness, we can push this evil back to where it belongs.
Oh, S. Lee – when certain things happen that are SO terribly sad, heinous and despicable — sometimes we read, "Words cannot describe…." However, your words describe this fight so vividly and with such emotion as it particularly concerns your very family. We all pray for love and kindness — and we especially send those sentiments to you at this time. Thanks for a most thoughtful post!
And just two days ago they arrested another Neo-Nazi for threatening a synagogue in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. I agree that this evil has once again wormed its way out of whatever hole it hid in, and we need to fight it at every turn.
What a moving post, condemning hatred and reminding us again – and we need to be reminded – that love and kindness are imperatives particularly today. We are seeing a rise in anti-Semitic attacks here in Maine, too. The KKK is active again as well. And yes, we need to fight all of this hatred at every turn.
Left in the aftermath of this, how does one put into words the horror, fright, despair, pain, heartbreak… You have written a touching piece that helps those of us on the outside gain a better understanding. Thank you for this.
It's horrific. Thank you for sharing your personal story. It makes me even more proud of my father who was D+2 on Omaha Beach and nearly died fighting the Nazis. It's often said that "history repeats itself," but there are some things we absolutely must learn from our past. One of them is that we need to stomp out and eradicate this type of hatred quickly and thoroughly. We as a people have the power to take a stand against evil. I stand with you.
I think I was well into high school before I learned that anti-Semitism wasn't just a one-time bizarre fluke of a guy named Hitler. (Okay, I was fairly insulated and also not the most socially conscious child.) I found it as utterly baffling then as I do now.
This is a fabulous post, Sandy.
Thank you for shining a light on this scourge. It's articulate and passionate, a post many careless people in America need to read. By careless, I mean those who don't worry about things happening to other people because (fill in the blank–too busy? don't really believe it? think it's just the work of one or two bad apples, etc). Crawled out from under a rock for sure.
Very moving. We live in scary times.