When I was a kid, maybe nine or ten, I had a nightmare that informed the way I live my life, and the way I conceive of safety. I was stuck in some kind of a Jurassic Park-type situation, chased through a multi-level industrial building by man-eating dinosaurs. I still remember the fluorescent lighting and the metal-grate stairs, and the feeling that there were several other people trying to escape the dinosaurs too, but not in any kind of coherent group. It was every man and every kid for himself.
Chased through this labyrinth, I found an elevator and dove in, hoping for shelter. When I turned around, my brother was running toward the closing doors, hoping to get in with me. The “Door Open” button was right there, but I didn’t press it. Instead I cried, “Sorry!” as the door closed, too afraid of being eaten to protect my own big brother.
Then a T-Rex tore open the door and ate me anyway.
As a young Jewish boy, the grandchild of a “hidden child” holocaust survivor and the great-nephew and great-grandchild of holocaust non-survivors, I grew up still very much in the shadow of that 20th century horror. Holocaust narratives, both fictional and biographical, were everywhere. The first graphic novel I ever read was Maus. For me and my contemporaries, it was natural to concoct fantasies of how we might have survived those times, had we been there.
After this dream, I stopped fantasizing about survival.
When you read enough holocaust survival narratives, the true theme that emerges is that people survived more through luck than anything else. I don’t mean to minimize the considerable skill that was often involved in staying under the radar – my own grandmother learned three languages fluently so that she’d be able to blend into Belgian society without suspicion. But most of those who perished – and nearly everyone did – were not killed for lack of skill or virtue. They just got unlucky.
After the dream, I rethought the “game” of survival, and came to terms with the fact that had I been there, I would almost certainly have been among the unlucky majority. Once I had reconciled with the inevitability of my death, my focus shifted from the question of how to survive, to the question of how to retain my humanity in the face of fear.
For many American Jews, including myself, the election of Donald Trump fills us with existential terror. The candidate openly endorsed by the KKK and other white supremacist anti-semitic groups has won the White House, and he’s an authoritarian whose party has achieved universal dominance up and down the ballot. Even before the election, the FBI was already functioning partially as his secret police. Not only can It happen here, but it very well might.
I spoke recently with the same friend whose comment had prompted this post a few months ago about fleeing an (at the time only potential) Donald Trump presidency. She said she had since read my post and appreciated it, but what can we do, practically speaking? What good can we really hope to accomplish, besides keeping our families safe?
I had some ideas and suggestions, but the basic truth is that I don’t know. It sort of depends how bad things get, both for us and for others. It could get really bad. But there’s no escaping the power of an antisemitic United States, and if the dinosaur is going to get me anyway, by God I’m going to hit Door Open.