“When my friend …”

“When my friend Kessler, the former bank clerk, was a child in a Catholic village in Württemburg, a Jewish peddler came to his village once a month. The peddler transacted all the villagers’ business for them, including their banking, without charge, and in return he stayed two or three days with the families of the village, in rotation, on his monthly visits. ‘He was just like a member of the family to us children,’ said Herr Kessler, ‘except for one thing. After dinner, when we read from the Lives of the Saints, the peddler went into the corner and stood there facing the wall and put a shawl on and a band around his forehead and said prayers different from ours. It must have frightened us somehow, because I remember my mother’s saying not to be frightened–it was just because he was a Jew he did that. We did not know what ‘Jew’ meant.
‘I remembered him only many years afterward, after the first war, when I first heard Nazi propaganda in Munich. And I remembered how I had been afraid–perhaps only mystified, but I supposed that with children the two are the same–when the Jew stood in the corner, facing the wall, with that band around his forehead, saying prayers we couldn’t understand, in Yiddish.’
‘In Hebrew,’ I said.
‘Yes, in Hebrew.’
‘Did your memory of the peddler make you anti-Semitic?’
‘No–not until I heard anti-Semitic propaganda. Jews were supposed to do terrible things that the peddler had never done. And still–I had been frightened by him when he prayed, although I think I really loved him otherwise. The propaganda didn’t make me think of him as I knew him but as a Jew. And I suppose it was as a Jew, praying alone, that he frightened us. So I suppose that, in the end, that was part of it, of my anti-Semitism. I can still make myself frightened, put myself back there. I hear my mother saying not to be frightened.'”

— Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: the Germans, 1933-45

How often are we frightened by that which is unfamiliar, that which we find strange to our own way of doing things?  It’s the alien nature of the Other’s way of life that frightens people, that makes them turn away and refuse to see that, beyond what is different, there is just another human being.  In those times, we should all be so lucky to hear a motherly voice telling us not to be frightened.

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