Asylum

Rūta. Arija. Ieviņš.

That was my mother’s name.

As a 14 year old girl she travelled on foot the breadth of Europe fleeing the advancing Soviet troops. If she and her father and brother had not fled their native country, they would have died. Their knowledge of this fate was so certain that they eventually risked death to escape it. And for that, they journeyed on a hard, hard road.

My mother would spend her teen years in displaced persons camps in Germany. For five years she lived in detention. She did not have a country that she could go back to. And neither did she have a new one to which she could belong.

And she was abandoned in more ways than one. Her mother died during the war. In flight as a young girl, she was separated from her father for months at a time. These things took their toll. Later in life she would have a hard time forming attachments. She was prone to depression. As a grown woman, she would have difficulty sleeping. She would cry uncontrollably in the night. She was short of temper. In her bouts of sadness and rage, she could sometimes be violent.

But then again, perhaps she had it easy. In February 1945, as a young girl she joined hundreds of thousands of European refugees as they pressed toward the Elbe river. The Yalta Conference had just concluded, and by word of mouth, she learned where the borders would be drawn. Get across the Elbe, the people told one another. Across the Elbe you will be with the Americans.

My mother and brother were instructed to make peace with the American soldiers when they arrived. They were told to just surrender. If nothing else, at least you will get fed, people said. That was quite often the sentiment, my uncle once recalled. You will get fed and you will be taken care of.

Because the Americans don’t mistreat their prisoners.

They are not the Russians.

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And This is Why

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Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.

Today I turn 52.

History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.

Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.

This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.

The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.

In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.

He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.

On this day I turn 52.

—-

I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.

A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.

As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.

But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.

It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.

It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?

It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.

In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.

It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.

Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.

Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.

Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.

Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.

Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.

Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.

Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.

Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.

Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.

Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.

Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.

Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.

Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.

—-

The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.

You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.

And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better.  You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous.  And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.

I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.

Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.

And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.

Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.

Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.

Not on my watch.

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