In the early 1960’s my father was a science teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. Like most public school teachers, his salary could not support a family of five – even when coupled with my mother’s greater income as an advertising executive – so he moonlighted several nights a week as a pharmacist. On occasion, I would join him at the North Philadelphia drug store where he worked, and it was always a rare treat. I learned to formulate capsules with a mortar, pestle, and spatula, and to fix an ice cream soda. I also learned the rudiments of tactful customer service – for example, that one does not respond to a discreet customer inquiry by shouting across the store “Hey, Dad! What’s Kotex and where do we keep it?”
One summer evening, as I sat at the counter sucking up a malted (does anyone even remember what that is?), a customer came in. She had that familiar Old Jewish Aunt look that reminded me of my grandmother and her friends: sunken, gray features, hair in a bun, simple housedress. She addressed my father in Yiddish, in a half-whisper. She had a serial number tattooed on her forearm, and I knew what that meant. I couldn’t hear much of what they said, and I understood even less, but I heard her say Ikh hob moyre – “I’m afraid.” After a few minutes of hushed conversation, my father patted her on the arm and said Zayt gezunt, dayget nisht – “Be well, don’t worry” – and she left without buying anything.
When the door closed and its little bell was still, my father quietly spoke – half to me, half to himself: “We beat the Nazis twenty years ago, but the war isn’t really over.” I asked him what he meant.
This woman lived in the neighborhood, he explained, one of a very few Jews left in what had once been a Jewish enclave. She had come in once to buy something, and my father had noted her broken English and responded in Yiddish. After that she kept coming back. She believed obsessively that the Nazis were everywhere, and that they were actively pursuing her. Usually when she came in, it was because she believed she had spotted an SS man lurking around a corner and wanted to warn my father. For her, the nightmare would never be over.
Today – half a century later – I know that my father was right. The Nazis are nearly all dead, and so are the survivors, but new Holocausts continue, and their effects prevail long after the conflicts have ended. A century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, the legacy of slavery lives on in our cities. The Treaty of Fort Laramie – our government’s last pact with a Native American nation – was signed nearly that long ago, but the suffering and devastation wreaked upon our First Nations can never be reversed.
Even in our own time, we again witness a despotic demagogue gaining popular favor in a free country by inciting hatred and exclusion and inflaming the ignorance of the masses. In more remote lands, mass murder, exile, and persecution continue to rage, yet we at home are cruelly indifferent toward the victims as they seek refuge. Once again, it seems easier to seek a scapegoat than to summon compassion.
Ikh hob moyre. I am afraid.