That was said to me when I was a sophomore at Indiana University, Bloomington, In. It was 1962. To be fair, the girl who said it was only being truthful. She was one of three suitemates (2 girls to a room, connected by a bathroom.) The school semester started off with her being very cool toward me and one day, this popped out of her mouth. Then she commented, ‘you’re not what I expected.” I don’t remember how I responded. I probably smiled, shrugged my shoulders and said something like, “this is me.” End of discussion. We were friends and the semester went on.
Not a very anti-Semitic incident, but one I never forgot. I grew up in a religious Jewish home in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC and was always told that no one would look out for me like my parents and my community…with that they meant the local Jewish community. So, in other words, stay close. Although I was a relatively obedient kid, I wanted to live a different life than my parents…staying close was not what I had in mind.
I was accepted to IU and had planned on majoring in Journalism. The university in their wisdom put all the Jewish girls together in one corner of a dorm. I met girls from Gary, Indiana, Indianapolis, and New Jersey. It was great until I realized we were living in a kind of ghetto. One day I came back from class and I had swastikas painted on my door. I brought the floor counselor over to look at the door. She was distressed. The swastikas were removed and nothing was ever said about it.
I wasn’t afraid. Not even angry. I thought it was stupid. Yes, I knew what a swatiska meant, but I felt the students that did this didn’t know…not really. They didn’t know that my Hungarian and Russian relatives were killed in the Holocaust. It never happened again and the semester went on. However, it is something else I never forgot.
Fast forward 15 years, I was living in San Francisco and something…I don’t remember what…happened and I began to feel uneasy. I said to my native San Franciscan Irish-Catholic boyfriend, ‘what do I do when they come for me. Where do I go?” He tried to assure me that no one was coming for me. I pressed him, “What am I going to do? I don’t have a community around me.”
He saw my panic and said “if it came to that, we would go get lost in the Sierras. "But, this is America. It is safe. Nothing like that is going to happen.”
We were married and had two children. I remember one Hanukah when the boys were young trying to describe the Holocaust when so many of my family members were lost. My oldest boy was adopted. His birth parents were from El Salvador and my youngest was born with developmental difficulties. When they asked if they would have been taken by the Nazi’s, I had to answer ‘yes.’ Besides all of us being Jewish, the oldest had brown skin and the youngest was disabled. Then I said, “But this is America. It is safe. Nothing like that is going to happen.”
On Saturday, once I heard about the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, that uneasy feeling
came back. This is America, I thought. It’s not as safe as I was led to believe. As I walked my dog, went grocery shopping, headed to the gym, I looked closely at everyone. “Would you be there for me? My family?” I wondered.
I would like to think they would be, but honestly, I can’t be certain.