Swastikas, Taken in Stride
Anti-Semitic graffiti in Hasidic Brooklyn excites the media, but many residents—old and young—shrug
Last Friday morning, the day stretched luxuriously before me: cooking soup and cholent for the Shabbos guests, a walk in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, a visit to a friend—and no freelancing at all, easy to do in this economy. Then my husband called. Someone had painted a swastika on the front of Fischman’s grocery. The police were there.
In the block-and-a-half walk from my home to Fischman’s, I heard conflicting reports from passersby that swastikas had been spray-painted around the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn—on eight buildings or nine, on five shuls or one; no one was clear, and most were blasé.
“This is not news,” the owner of the baby-furniture store near Fischman’s told a reporter. “You think this is the first time this has happened in our neighborhood?”
Sadly, the man on the street was right. For years, Nazi symbols have been the calling-card of choice for disturbed pranksters as well as genuine anti-Semites throughout Brooklyn—and from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Boston, Massachusetts. So, while this weekend’s appearance of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti is drama to eager local news teams, the residents of Borough Park have largely taken the incidents in stride.
A few years ago, a bus-stop sign on 16th Avenue, down the street from me, was the canvas on which a graphic, but unimaginative graffitist described what he earnestly believed should be done to the Jews. Just about every person I asked over the past few days has witnessed something similar. In Borough Park, Orthodox Jews aren’t the only targets; in a show of unwitting egalitarianism, the progressive synagogue on 46th Street was defaced this weekend, and in nearby Kensington, a van was also spray-painted with a swastika on Sunday evening, all part of a wave of vandalism for which the New York Police have yet to find a suspect.
In the days since, I’ve talked with some Borough Park residents, including Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, to parse the attacks and reflect on the fact that Jews are seen as both “other” and “victim.” I asked if anyone remembered Daniel Haddad, a Jew who was tied to similar crimes this past January. Sixty-year-old Scheindel Fischman, the great-grandmother whose grocery store was marked with a swastika last week, agreed that today perhaps our most haunting fear is that, “G-d forbid, a Jew should be involved in this crime.” But that a vandal had defaced her property? That was nothing a little detergent couldn’t handle.
Before I was religious, my encounters with anti-Semitism were unspectacular. A few decades ago, on the day we moved to Colts Neck, N.J.—as far away from the Jew-filled Upper West Side as my parents could get and still have access to the theater, symphony, and opera—the neighbors’ children arrived en masse and asked to see my brother’s and my horns. In fifth grade the impish, freckled Adam Smith threw a penny in the air: He said it was a test to see if there were any Jews in the room. (The teacher giggled.) And later, while attending a high-school party at the semi-restricted Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, my friends told me to not sign the guestbook with my real name. As a woman in my 20s and 30s, I more than occasionally overheard anti-Semitic remarks in England, where I lived for a few years. I just swallowed the uncomfortable feeling and looked the other way.
Has the rhetoric been ratcheted up? As a visibly Torah-observant Jew, I occasionally meet people through work who seem to feel entitled to scold me about the shameful behavior of other Orthodox Jews—or how people like me should know better than to support Israel, with its “Nazi policies of genocide against the Palestinian people,” or other such phrasings.
I’m sensitive to the fact that trauma can leave a stain that sometimes inks generations. In the last couple of years the remaining Holocaust survivors who had lived in my apartment building passed away (most recently, the inspirational Rachel Knopfler and Bernard Eimer), as well as several others in the neighborhood, but a few more remain.
One of them, Herta Kohn, told me over the phone: “These swastikas? It’s hard—very painful. Look, I was 10. In Vienna.” She paused and sighed, then went on: “I am a Holocaust survivor. There’s hardly anybody left. Today’s children—it’s not real for them. It’s like they read it in a book.”
Kohn also recognized a sweeping generational difference: “This generation always has simchas—weddings, bar mitzvahs, brissim,” she said. For many survivors, with their paucity of family members, a wedding or bris was an unusual occurrence. For them, Jewish life-cycle simchas were evidence of spiritual victory over evil, not common events like they are today in a growing neighborhood where over 4,000 babies are born each year. Many survivors lost entire families and then began again with new spouses, in the model of the Klausenberger Rebbe, who survived Auschwitz, a death march, and Dachau—losing his first wife and 11 children—to go on to remarry and have seven children.
Borough Park resident Bracha Klein, a 60-year-old great-grandmother, said her father had a “whole other family” who were killed by the Nazis. Like her, many other children who survived the war, she said, never met a zaide or bubbe, which in today’s Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods, where many children know their great-grandparents, is almost unimaginable.
For Kohn, Friday’s events unleashed powerful emotion. She said, “I speak about the war a lot. Not everyone can do this. People want to put it out of their memory. And this generation wants to put it out of their memory, too. The second generation, though, they remember. They saw what it did to their parents.”
Kohn is able—even needs—to talk about what she endured. But not everyone is able to, said Fischman, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. “My parents didn’t mention a word about the war or what they went through,” she said. She and her siblings never asked. “We were in awe of them and accorded them great honor. We believed their lives were private and wouldn’t have dreamed of prying into their personal thoughts.” Fischman said she learned the details of what her parents went through from nephews and nieces, “because they were the ones who felt comfortable asking questions.”
As I’ve got to know two and three generations of friends’ families, I’ve noticed this. Children of Holocaust survivors are sometimes the “skipped” generation; they don’t know the details of what their parents went through until they are told by their own children or other, younger relatives. More than a handful haven’t brought up the camps, hunger, and death with their parents, because they don’t want to hurt them, because their parents don’t bring it up, and sometimes because they’re afraid of tapping into repressed pain that can’t be contained.
Fischman’s parents were made of very strong stuff: Their faith in God and their stalwart natures sustained them. Fischman remembered them as positive, always looking forward. Not everyone is able to do this, she conceded. “An elderly survivor, a lady from Hungary, often comes in to buy her groceries,” Fischman said. “This lady was deeply affected by the war and is still afraid.” Sometimes, as she checks out the groceries, they talk, and “she cries, here in the store.”
But Fischman had practical issues to deal with; after all, there was a swastika on her doorway. “My first response was to grab a Mr. Clean eraser sponge and wipe it away,” she said. The police stopped her before she was able to destroy evidence.
“I was taught by my mother—as children we walked to school on the Eggerton Road, in Stamford Hill, London, and the other children would call us ‘bloody Jews’ and throw bottles and stones at us—to ignore the hatred and look the other way,” she said. “Mummy was the war generation, and this was nothing new for her. But today, we have to, we must, stick up for ourselves.”
By Saturday afternoon, Shabbos, an hour before mincha, the afternoon prayers, there were more uniformed and undercover New York police officers on the street than I’ve seen since the High Holidays some years ago, when the national guard was stationed here, complete with automatic weapons and camouflage, because of threats to synagogues. On the corner of 43rd Street and 15th Avenue, a movie-star-handsome policeman in full uniform stood in front of Freund’s Fish Store, which was closed for the Sabbath. A gaggle of smitten boys in their best Shabbos clothing and shined shoes surrounded him. The grin on his face signaled how much he was enjoying his assignment to this Yiddish-accented answer to Mayberry.
In Borough Park, children who have never seen a movie or television show, let alone heard of The Wire or CSI, fervently admire police officers, firefighters, and construction workers (and even mail carriers in their summer pith helmets). And the cops seem to adore the kids right back. My husband and I walked on.
The swastikas were a momentary blip in an otherwise normal Erev Shabbos. The younger boys only had eyes for the after-effects: a uniform stationed on every corner. Victimhood doesn’t seem to be in this new generation’s psycho-spiritual makeup—and except for the politicians and publicity-seekers, most people just want to move on.
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