Bricks and Mortars

Bicycling through zoos

By Lawrence Reichard | May 04, 2017

I recently went to see “The Zookeeper's Wife” at the Colonial. The film tells the story of a couple who successfully hid, in a zoo, 300 Polish Jews from almost certain death at the hands of the German army in World War II Warsaw. The opening scene is charming. The zookeeper's wife is riding through the zoo on her bicycle, saying hello to, and checking on, all the animals, and a juvenile camel is running after her.

Then the bombs start falling.

The film reminded me of some extraordinary Jews I have known who escaped the murderous state of Nazi Germany.

Lisa Fittko, who lived next door to my father in Chicago. Lisa fought pitched battles with fascists in the streets of Berlin during the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s, and she went on to smuggle Jews, including the philosopher Walter Benjamin, across the Pyrenees from occupied France to safety in Spain during the war. Barack Obama lived a few doors down from Lisa and my father when he was an Illinois state senator. Obama liked and admired Lisa, and he attended Lisa's 90th birthday party, as did I.

Gusti Kollman, a long-distance runner who literally ran after and chased down the vehicle Nazis in Vienna used to take away her husband Eric. Gusti and Eric escaped to this country, and Eric later became a teaching colleague of my father. Gusti is now 104 years old and lives in Iowa City.

Peter Lax, who, with his parents, escaped Budapest just in time, and went on to work on the Manhattan Project, and to win the Abel prize, the most prestigious mathematics prize in the world. Peter lives in Manhattan. He turned May 91 on Monday.

Then I thought about my country. Could fascism take hold in my country? Nazi Germany wasn't born in a day. Like any kind of state, it takes a while to form, and to seize power.

And I thought about this: At what point is it reasonable, sane and rational, at what point is not hysterics or overreaction, to think one's country may be drifting toward fascism?

I do not lightly throw around the word fascism. In three years of writing this column, I don't think I've used it once. But if a columnist thinks his country may be sliding into fascism, at what point is it his duty to risk being called an alarmist or a crank by raising this possibility and sounding an alarm? Is it when it's too late? Is that the proper time?

Is it when a country's leader demonizes a particular group of people, be it Jews, immigrants, Muslims or transgender people, and calls immigrants rapists and Muslims terrorists? Is it upon the election of a man who encourages his followers to beat up opponents, offering to pay their legal bills? Is it when the former head of a white supremacist “news” platform becomes the head of state's most important adviser? Is it when the head of state seeks to increase military spending by unprecedented amounts? Is it when the head of state attacks other states, directly or indirectly, killing large numbers of civilians, with no input from, or involvement of, let alone approval from, the legislative branch of government?

Is it when a charismatic leader, with promises of national greatness, appeals to workers whose livelihoods have been decimated?

Is it when immigration officers target immigration activists, and arrest and deport legal immigrants in a matter of hours? Is it when judges ignore the law and refuse to release legal immigrants? Is it when opposition lawmakers are thrown out of a meeting with the head of immigration? Is it when the ruling party throws out long-standing precedent to completely marginalize the opposition and ram through a thoroughly corporate Supreme Court justice? Hitler banned opposition parties. Ban, marginalize, same net result.

Is it when the head of state, in a rare press conference, is asked by an Israeli journalist about rising anti-Semitism and he tells the journalist to sit down and shut up?

Is it when the head of state's cabinet is dominated by corporate power? Is it when the head of state and his family brazenly profit from their positions of power?

Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once said fascism is when you can't fit a cigarette rolling paper between corporations and the state.

Is it when large numbers of blacks live in ghettos and are regularly hauled away, sometimes in the middle of the night, to be convicted of victimless drug offenses and forced to work for the benefit of private corporations in veritable slave labor camps popularly known as prisons, much as Jews, gays, intellectuals, gypsies, and communists were in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied territories?

Is it when those same blacks have their voting rights stripped away, along with their ability to get student loans, housing, jobs and state assistance? Is it when black and Native American leaders are hounded by state police organizations, locked away in prisons and killed?

Is it when the head of state's top counter-terrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, has sworn a lifetime oath to Vitezl Rend, a Hungarian fascist organization that the State Department says was under the direction of Nazi Germany? Is it when no alarm is raised about this and the adviser remains in office, completely unscathed by the revelations of his fascist ties?

Earlier this month white supremacist Trump supporters clashed with anti-fascists in Berkeley, which reminded me of Lisa Fittko's Berlin street battles. And the Berkeley police stood by and did nothing.

Right now many are doubtless thinking the streetfighting anti-fascists are paranoid, jumping the gun, overreacting, or just having fun the way they like to have fun.

But what if that's wrong? What if the anti-fascists are right? What if they're not paranoid or overreacting? What if they are the Lisa Fittkos of today?

Are we as a society underestimating the threat we're facing from within? Are we bicycling through the zoo? I don't know.

And is the United States drifting toward fascism? I don't know that either, but it is certainly possible. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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