A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Drumming nervously on the steering wheel, I begin to mutter to myself. “C’mon, Renee. You told me 7:45, right? Actually, you demanded I pick you up precisely at 7:45. Well, I’m here, but where are you?”
“We have much to do tomorrow,” she’d declared in her guttural German accent. So, I made sure I was on time this morning.
I double check the number on the motel door directly in front of my parking spot: Room 112, where I dropped her off last evening.
I’m not looking forward to spending another day with her. As a federal contractor assessing my early intervention program, she minces no words. She makes it very clear where we’re falling short, with little regard for social etiquette.
I agree with most of her recommendations. It’s a new site, and it’s my first job out of college. Despite my early childhood degree, there are many things I don’t know about running a multi-disciplinary program for low-income families. I’m eager to learn from her. I just wish her delivery were a little gentler. That this short, rotund fifty-something woman would smile more. Would bark less.
She arrived by train early yesterday morning, so I’m serving as her local shuttle. After she observed my program all day, I invited her to dinner. Conversation was strained – we had little in common. And I felt most inadequate in her presence. She picked at her meal and barely touched the glass of wine she’d ordered. She insisted on paying her own way to ensure there’d be no ethics violation, even though we didn’t talk about the program. She told me she was tired, so we didn’t linger after dinner. I dropped her off at this motel around 8pm last night.
Perhaps she’s waiting for me to escort her to the car. She is rather formal. Maybe she thinks me rude to not collect her at her door. In full-blown annoyance, I slam the car door and stomp to the motel room.
The door is slightly ajar. “Renee?”
I listen for a response.
I can hear the television so, assuming she can’t hear me, I gently push the door open.
She lies supine on the floor, writhing and groaning deeply, making wounded animal sounds. Frightened, I look around for an intruder, but see nothing unusual.
I kneel beside her, continuing to call her name: “Renee? Renee? It’s okay. I’ll get help.”
Shaking, I pick up the room phone and ask the reception desk to summon an ambulance. The medics take her vitals, loosen her blouse, and remove her jewelry. They prepare her for transport to the Emergency Room.
As they place her on the stretcher, her left arm flops off the side. That’s when I notice the serial number tattooed on the underside of her wrist.
With a flick of her arm, she transitions from a German to a victim of the German government.
I return to my office to alert Renee’s office. In response, my phone begins to ring incessantly with calls from her colleagues. They want to know what specifically happened while she was visiting my program: Had anything peculiar occurred? When did I find her? What did I notice?
I don’t have much to report. The unlatched door still concerns me. Had she been robbed or raped? Or had she tried to get some fresh air? Had last night’s dinner made her sick? Did she have an epileptic seizure?
Calls completed, I race back to the hospital to learn she’d had a massive stroke and is in a coma. A few days later, Renee dies.
Friends come to collect her possessions; she had no family. The questions continue, to the point that I wonder if I’m a suspect of some sort. I was the last to spend time with her. I’d chosen the restaurant. I’d found her in the morning.
I tell them what I know, feeling responsible and helpless.
A few weeks later, one of her colleagues calls me again. “I just got some information from a friend of Renee’s whom Renee had called from the train on the way to your program. Apparently, she’d had a very rough visit at the program before yours. It wasn’t a high-quality center for kids, and she came down hard, as you know Renee could do. The staff didn’t take it well, and one publicly called her a Nazi.”
I remain silent, remembering her tattooed wrist.
She takes a deep breath. “Are you still there?”
I swallow hard. “Yes, please go on.”
“Renee was in Auschwitz for years as a child; she lost her whole family there. ‘Nazi’ was the cruelest thing she could’ve been called because when she survived the camp, she vowed to make life better for other kids. That’s why she wanted every program to be top-notch.”
That epithet carelessly hurled at Renee had undoubtedly resurrected all those suppressed memories of suffering at the hands of Nazis. Her blood pressure must have skyrocketed, causing a fatal stroke.
I felt both relieved and horrified to hear the back story.
Forty years later, this has become a cautionary tale for me about not indiscriminately throwing the word Nazi around. During the last two administrations, the iconic mustache has been drawn on images of both President Bush and President Obama, despite their vastly divergent ideologies. Casual and flippant use of this term dilutes the impact of what should be a serious accusation. And can be hurtful to those who were targets of the heinous Nazi pogrom.
Being adamant about doing things a certain way or being staunch in a belief doesn’t make someone a Nazi. To qualify for that label, one must embrace the platform of the Nazi party, as outlined in 1920 by Adolf Hitler, then the party propagandist. This platform includes belief in a superior race with exclusive rights; denigration of foreigners; curtailment of immigration and expulsion of immigrants currently present; waging a ruthless war against those who are deemed traitors to the State; indoctrination of children to party principles through school curricula; replacement of the standing military with a new military; suppression of the press and literature through government’s selection of editors, writers, and content; freedom of religion if it does not offend the predominant race; and the unconditional central authority of the State.
Renee was decidedly not a Nazi; she was an advocate for sound early childhood education. Because of her history, it stung deeply to be called one, perhaps causing her death.
Although the label became popularized by Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, only a Nazi should be called a Nazi. But we can’t be blind to nationalistic leaders who blatantly flirt with a Nazi-esque platform. The Alt-Right political movement gaining momentum, not only in the United States but around the globe, should appropriately and publicly be branded as Nazi and/or White Nationalist. Those who do not shrink in horror from any association with the Alt-Right platform must wear that label. And admit they have forsaken any devotion to God, Jesus, or prophets who teach tolerance, social justice, and love as the way.
Many friends who supported the victorious Alt-Right presidential candidate tell me they don’t agree with his platform of denigrating foreigners, curtailing immigration of Muslims, or expelling Mexicans. They don’t agree with suppressing First Amendment rights or limiting individual freedoms. When I ask why they voted for him then, they respond, “He won’t do all that stuff! It’s just political rhetoric.”
Rhetoric, and now action, that treads dangerously close to the Nazi platform. Racist graffiti, including swastikas, and hate crimes have been dramatically on the rise in the United States since the presidential election.
Only a Nazi should be called a Nazi. But a Nazi should definitely be called a Nazi.
Those who voted for him but disagree with his platform have a greater moral and civic obligation to stand in the way of it being realized. They must prove they are not Nazi-leaning by being vocal and visible in opposition.
And I hope they’ll defend my rights if I’m deemed a “traitor to the State” for writing this piece.
Copyright 2017 Patricia A. Nugent