Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
I was eleven years old when I first learned about the Holocaust. I may have heard the word before, but I’d never really understood what it was until Mrs. Kaufman put it in context.
Though Mrs. Kaufman was grayhaired, wrinkled, and probably a grandmother, she had the most tremendous breasts any of us sixth graders had ever seen on a teacher. Even her thick cardigans were unable to conceal their enormity.
I can’t remember the name of our history textbook, except that it had a red cover, an ominous thick black swastika in the middle, and, on the inside of the back cover, a detail I added: twenty-five numbered illustrations of different sizes and varieties of breasts.
During the second week of class, Mrs. Kaufman drew a timeline on the board. It began in 1933, with Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor and the boycotting of Jewish professional services. Below the year 1935, she wrote “The Nuremberg Laws,” which stripped Jews of their citizenship. Now she was at 1938. “Jewish passports stamped with J,” she wrote. Then, on the line underneath, she wrote “Kristallnacht” in big letters.
“Can anyone tell me what Kristallnacht was?”
As the class clown, it was my duty to come up with a joke response to every question. But instead, I listened transfixed, imagining myself suffering each successive indignity. I don’t know why, but when studying literature and history in school, I never identified with the oppressor—only with the victim. Perhaps because that was also my role in the social pecking order of sixth grade: the small, funny kid who was bad at sports, awkward around girls, and fell over easily when pushed, especially when carrying books.
Penny, a transfer student who was blond and smart and perfect, raised her hand. “It was the night the Nazis rioted against the Jews,” she said, the kiss-ass.
“That’s right.” Mrs. Kaufman nodded approvingly. “Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked, and Jews were beaten and murdered in the streets.”
We’d already learned, a week earlier, the end of the story: ghettos, concentration camps, gas showers, and a new and ugly word I’d been taught: genocide.
“Why did they stay?” I blurted.
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Kaufman asked. It was impossible to look at anything but her breasts when she spoke.
“When things were getting so bad, why would any Jew stay in Germany?”
“A lot of people didn’t think things would get any worse,” she answered. “And by that point, it was harder for Jews to leave.”
As the Holocaust was retaught with further elaboration in each successive European history class, I found myself more and more amazed that people would willingly remain in a country that was stripping them of their rights and homes.
And I told myself the same thing every time: If that ever starts happening here, I’m not going to wait around, thinking things can’t get any worse. I’m getting out, before it’s too late.