My Best Friend is German

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Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau, Germany. Photo: Eric Graber

by Eric Graber

I was born 15 years after World War II, but the war and its aftermath loomed heavily in our home. Our family was Jewish. My father was a first-generation American. His parents had emigrated from Poland around 1910 to escape persecution. While he never met them, my father grew up knowing he had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Poland. Up until the war broke out, he would occasionally hear news from them. They all died in the war, most likely in concentration camps.

I grew up with the understanding that World War II happened because of an indelible character flaw of Germans. Germans were and would always be evil people who had it in for the Jews. I often heard Germans referred to in Yiddish as “German pig dogs.”

Interestingly, I have spent more time in Germany than any other country.  My first trip was in 1975, and since then I’ve been there more than 40 times at last count, adding up to about two years of my life spent in Germany. My closest friend lives there, and for several years I had to visit Germany for work. Most of the WWII generation is gone now, but in years past I had been welcomed into homes and wined and dined by people who thirty or forty years earlier would have killed me because I was a Jew.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my time in Germany since Trump’s rise to power. How could all those perfectly lovely, welcoming people I met in Germany have supported Hitler? And now I am wondering about all those perfectly wonderful people I know here in America who voted for and support Trump.

I don’t entirely understand what leads people to make what I believe are hateful choices, but I don’t think the answer is as simple as dividing the world up into good and bad people as I once did. What I have come to believe is that under the right, or the wrong, circumstances perfectly good people can be led to believe perfectly awful things and commit perfectly horrible acts, all the while thinking they’re doing the right thing.

I do believe that Trump is a dangerous demagogue, but I can’t hate his supporters because under the right, or the wrong, circumstances I could have been one of them. I was born into a liberal, educated, upper-middle class family.  It’s not hard to see why I am who I am.  But had I been born into a rural, white, working-class family, it’s quite likely I’d be a Trump supporter.  Or, for that matter, had I been born into a German family in 1920, I could easily have been a Nazi.  I cannot imagine that my genes have so hard-wired my brain that under different circumstances I could not have become the people who I now fear.

I think it is critical that all of us who oppose Trump and his agenda make our voices heard.  But I think it’s essential that we speak and listen to Trump supporters with compassion, knowing that they are not inherently bad people, and that under the right, or the wrong, circumstances we could have been them.

Eric Graber is a semi-retired marketing communications professional from Anne Arundel County who has reluctantly been drawn into the resistance movement. He dedicates as much time as possible to painting, exploring various movements in modern art.

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