Tag Archives: Fascism

I Cover Hate. I Didn’t Expect It at My Family’s Jewish Cemetery

Traditions don’t protect you from death, or the life of anxiety in preparation for it.


February, 2017

When it comes to death, my family honors all of the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions: We name our children after dead relatives, we sit shiva for a week, we gather around trays of fruit and lox and cream cheese, we cover the mirrors, we say the Kaddish prayer, we each toss three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave, and we wait a year to put a stone on top of it. When I got my driver’s license at 16, my mom asked me not to sign the organ donor card because Jews are supposed to be laid to rest in one piece. When I turned 18 and signed it anyway, I couldn’t stop imagining her face when she found out after I’d died in a car accident.

But traditions don’t protect you from death, or the life of anxiety in preparation for it. When I told my grandmother — her mother called her Malka, her sisters called her Mollie — that I had an opportunity to teach English abroad, I knew what to expect in response: “That’s nice, baby, but why don’t you find a teaching job around here where it’s safe?” That, and a $20 bill she couldn’t necessarily afford to give.

But when I added, “I’m going to a place in Belarus called Minsk; it’s a big city,” her reply took me by surprise. “Minsk!” she exclaimed. “That’s where my mother was from! I guess you could go. Maybe you’ll see where they lived?”

I did go. I didn’t see where they lived because that place does not exist anymore, thanks to World War II and the Soviets. To identify the symbols of Judaism left in a city that was about 37 percent Jewish in 1941, you have to squint at the stone facades of buildings and say, “Yes, I think that might be a Hebrew character.” You have to stare hard, and wonder, “Hmm, is that Yiddish?”

There are statues and plaques here and there. But look as one might, there are few relics of Jewish death. When you visit Khatyn, a memorial to the victims of “the Great War,” you learn about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, but little to nothing about what religion they practiced. Nor are there signs marking entire villages of Belarussians, Jews and non-Jews, that became unmarked mass graves. When I would ask my students and co-workers and friends, “What happened to the Jews here?” all most of them would say was, “They left.”

Here, of course, we know why they “left.” My relatives who stayed in Eastern Europe died. Those who moved to America lived. Every single one of my great-grandparents was a first- or second-generation Eastern European immigrant to St. Louis. If you’ve been following the news this week, you probably know where this story is going: Almost all of my immigrant ancestors are buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, where nearly 200 graves were vandalized this past weekend.

I’ve been to only one funeral at Chesed Shel Emeth, which is in University City, about 15 minutes from where I grew up. I certainly wasn’t there when they buried my grandmother’s mother, Alice, the immigrant from Minsk, more than 40 years ago. Her tombstone wasn’t among the ones vandalized. But I know the idea that it might have been desecrated — that it is even a possibility — is on Grandma Mollie’s mind today, and on my mother’s as well. I know because for the last several days all we’ve been talking about are relatives like “little Grandma Alice,” who never grew to 5 feet, who cooked elaborate noodle kugels, whose husband died young, who never really learned to drive or speak English and who was scared of strangers unless her family was around.

I’m privileged to have grown up in St. Louis, a place where my grandparents wanted me to stay because it felt “safe” to them — a place they’d made their way to with the help of documents that we know weren’t entirely accurate or complete, and they became citizens anyway. So when a news link about my family’s Jewish cemetery popped up in the group chat for a reporting project on hate crimes that I’m involved in at ProPublica, I wasn’t prepared. Nor was I prepared when I called home and my mom told me that she was going to exchange cash for gold in case “things get worse” and that my dad — who has never considered shooting anything in his life — had wondered out loud about getting a gun.

I wanted to say, “You’re overreacting.” But I can’t, really, in part because it’s so hard to gauge the threat. Data on hate crimes — against Jews and everyone else — is miserably incomplete and poorly tracked. My job is about presenting facts to contextualize the news of the day, horrible as it may be. This time, I had to tell my family that I didn’t have them.

We don’t know if the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth was technically a hate crime. The motives behind it may well be uncovered. What we do know is that there is a long tradition of desecrating Jewish cemeteries, from Nazi Germany to present-day France and New York. And whatever the particulars, the news hit at a time when the Jewish community has been put on edge by threats to Jewish community centers where kids go to preschool and their retired grandparents take Kabbalah-infused yoga classes.

That’s why our project, “Documenting Hate,” an attempt to create a reliable database of hate crimes and bias incidents, asks victims to submit their stories. When I read the submissions, it’s clear that defining “hate crimes” can be as elusive as reliable data tracking them. It’s just as clear that we need to make the attempt to define them, report them, investigate them — to gather enough, at least, for context.

Yes, it’s about confronting the ugliness and comforting the scared. But it’s also about giving real answers, using actual numbers and telling true stories when our children ask questions like, “What happened to the Jews?”

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Ariana Tobin is an engagement reporter at ProPublica, where she works to cultivate communities to inform our coverage. She was previously at The Guardian, where she was an engagement editor focused on audience analytics, social media, and SEO best practices. Before that, she worked at WNYC, producing the technology-focused Note to Self podcast. There, she helped launch the multi-platform Bored and Brilliant and Infomagical series, which analyzed information on nearly 30,000 participants’ smartphone habits.

Ariana has also worked as digital producer for APM’s Marketplaceand contributed to outlets including The New Republic, On Being, the St. Louis Beacon, and Bustle. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, and studied on a Fulbright grant in Minsk, Belarus.


Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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American Fascism: We’ve Been Here Before

November 26, 2016

It feels funny to be in this place, at this time. There is a certain sense of déjà vu. This must have been what it was like to be in America in the late 20s and early 30s in the 20th century.

What Hillary Clinton should have said, wrote Masha Gessen, was "We have lost. We have lost, and this is the last day of my political career, so I will say what must be said. We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half. The president-elect has made his intentions clear, and it would be immoral to pretend otherwise. We must band together right now to defend the laws, the institutions, and the ideals on which our country is based.” Photo of Masha Gessen by Rodrigo Fernandez

What Hillary Clinton should have said, wrote Masha Gessen after the US election, was: “We are standing at the edge of the abyss. Our political system, our society, our country itself are in greater danger than at any time in the last century and a half….” Above, Masha Gessen. Photo by Rodrigo Fernandez, Creative Commons/Wikipedia

As Hitler’s power grew across the ocean, the idea of fascism began to grow stronger in the United States. In states like Wisconsin, the German-American Bund (an alliance of pro- Hitler German-Americans) started to run youth camps to indoctrinate children into the ideas of Nazism. Major American figures supported Hitler’s Germany. They included Charles Lindberg, who gave a speech September 11, 1941, denouncing President Franklin D Roosevelt and America’s Jews for pushing the country towards entry into war; Henry and Edsel Ford (Henry wrote the violently anti-Semitic book, “The International Jew,” which many Nazis cited as a source of their policies);, Paul Warburg (head of the Federal Reserve); and Charles Mitchell (the president of Standard Oil).

Major American businesses, like General Motors, IBM, Ford, Standard Oil, Kodak, and Coca-Cola continued to do business with the Nazis even after their treatment of the Jews and other minorities were well-known.

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Major media outlets like the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Herald Tribune, the Columbus Dispatch and others said that Hitler didn’t really mean all that stuff about Jews and conquering Europe. It was just rhetoric for his base at home, they suggested. The Dispatch wrote that the Nazis were a reaction to the “large Jewish element in the financial, commercial, professional, and official life of present-day Germany.” And the Monitor editorialized that it was the Jews’ own “commercial clannishness which gets them into trouble.”

I don’t write the above to condemn the present-day versions of these organizations. These controversies were more than 80 years ago. They are not now the same. As for the individuals, like Ford and Lindberg, history long ago marked them for their pro-Nazi sympathies.

No, I include this list to show that America, for all its talk of the love of liberty and equality, has long had a fascination for fascism and the rule of the autocrat. Americans, in particular white Christian Americans who believe that is their “God-given divine right” to run America, have seen fascism as a way to ensure their “right.”

This seems especially to be the case at times of economic trouble and cultural upheaval. Fascism of the kind offered by Donald Trump appeals, as a bromide against the problems of the day. Get rid of the immigrants, send women back to the kitchen, attack the Jews, the gays, those who are “different,” and all your problems will go away.

But there is a fundamental difference between America of the late 20s and early 30s, and the America of 2016. Back then, America had President Roosevelt, a progressive champion who, while not perfect by a long shot (ask a Japanese-American), at least was a bulwark against the popular sentiments promoting fascism. Today Roosevelt’s role is about to be filled by a man who actively promotes not only fascist ideas, but also people who believe in them even more than he does.

Above Charles M Blow. Photo by Larry D. Moore, Creative Commons/Wikipedia

New York Times writer Charles M. Blow, above, rejected the idea of appeasing Donald Trump: “This isn’t just about you, but also about the moral compass of those who see you for who and what you are, and know the darkness you herald is only held at bay by the lights of truth.” Photo by Larry D. Moore, Creative Commons/Wikipedia

Last week a group of neo-Nazis lead by Charles Spenser (who runs the innocuous sounding National Policy Institute and Radix Journal), gathered at the downtown Ronald Reagan Building in downtown in Washington, DC, to celebrate Trump’s victory. “For us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again!” he shouted at the end of the evening, a statement greeted by more than a few Nazi salutes by those in the crowd. “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer is off to do a speaking tour at U.S. universities.

No doubt man who will say that I am being hysterical. That Trump is already “sounding more moderate.” It’s easy to see how some of the mainstream media, particularly cable news, wants to believe this, and will probably promote this idea. After all, as we saw above, that’s what many did with Hitler back in the 30s.

But I want to quote from the article “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” by Masha Gessen, in the New York Review of Books. Gessen has spent many years covering Russia and similar regimes. We do not owe Trump “an open mind” she wrote.  “It was as though Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself.”

This goes right to the heart what Gessen learned from her many years of covering autocrats and fascists: Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.

With that in mind, consider this quote, from New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Blow refused to go the meeting this week between Trump and the editors and staff of the Times, and said he was proud and happy that he did no go. Then Blow let Trump have it.

“The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your ‘I hope we can all get along’ plea: Never. You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions.”

Trump: fascist, autocrat, demagogue. Take your pick. I’ll take all three.

We need to heed Gessen’s advice: believe what he says he’ll do. Don’t think he’ll “soften.” And we need to follow Blow’s actions: we will never get along.

This is a moment like the one in the 30s, when we need to decide which way this country will go. Trump lost the popular vote by the largest margin of anyone who has won the electoral college. Many more Americans are against Trump than are for him.

How those of us opposed to Trump mobilize over the next four years could make all the difference between the rest of the Nazi analogy playing out, or taking the next step in the creation of an America where religious, ethnic and gender diversity and roles are valued.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

Correction: An editing error inserted the wrong first name for President Roosevelt in an earlier version of this story. 


When American media cozied up to Hitler, The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/20/when-america-s-media-cozied-up-to-hitler.html

Americans for Hitler, America in WWII: http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/americans-for-hitler/

‘Let’s party like it’s 1933’: Inside the alt-right world of Richard Spencer, Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/lets-party-like-its-1933-inside-the-disturbing-alt-right-world-of-richard-spencer/2016/11/22/cf81dc74-aff7-11e6-840f-e3ebab6bcdd3_story.html4

Autocracy: Rules for Survival, by Masha Gessen, NY Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/11/10/trump-election-autocracy-rules-for-survival/

No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along, by Charles Blow, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/opinion/no-trump-we-cant-just-get-along.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0


Further reading:

How Journalists Need to Begin Imagining the Unimaginable, podcast by Eric Umansky, ProPublica, with journalist Masha Gessen, who spent years reporting from Putin’s Russia, on her thoughts on what journalists should be on watch for with the incoming U.S. administration.



Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 



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