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.”
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