by John Bussey
She preserved her German ID card, with its ‘J’ stamp, as a warning about the danger in societies driven by nativism and anger.
A lot of Americans are probably feeling a bit Mexican these days. I can understand why.
Like U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel—whom Donald Trump has criticized as a “Mexican judge” unfairly overseeing lawsuits against Trump University—more than 30 million U.S. citizens are second-generation Americans. At least one of their parents was born abroad. Mr. Curiel was born in Indiana, his father and mother in Mexico.
My mother was born in Berlin but she was, in a manner of speaking, the Mexican of her day—at least in the context of U.S. social history. A Jew, a refugee, an immigrant from Germany at a time of war—none of this really set her right with Americans in 1940.
There was even a popular figure in the U.S. at the time inveighing against immigrants of her type. Father Charles Coughlin, a priest operating out of Detroit, drew millions of listeners to his nativist radio broadcasts. His appeal was so divisive that the Roosevelt administration eventually intervened to take him off the air.
My mother and her parents had been chased out of Berlin by the Nazis in 1937 when she was 11. They lived in Amsterdam for two years and then came to the U.S. My grandfather literally limped across the border, his gait thrown off by a grenade wound suffered in World War I, fighting for a different Germany.
None of them spoke English well. My mother’s parents opened a small dress shop in Alexandria, Va. Then my mother set to work on assimilating, to the degree that she could. She went to school. She got into college. She was once asked to dance by a young man at a college gathering, and watched him turn and walk away when he learned her last name was Levy.
She married (a lapsed Catholic), had three children, got a Ph.D., worked as an economist in the Labor Department, had gigs with the United Nations and World Bank, wrote books, became a labor arbitrator and, by the time she died in 1996, spoke five languages.
My mother, like millions of first-generation Americans before her, did all right.
But even an enlightened society, one ruled by law, can quickly cut along tribal lines, as we see again in the dust-up over Judge Curiel and more broadly in this presidential campaign. My mother knew that, too. Despite all her accomplishments—she was vocally grateful to be an American—here is how “Mexican,” how much of an other, my mother still felt at the end of her life.
An organized woman, she had distilled her paperwork to its essence by the time my brother and I opened her safe-deposit box after her death. In the box was her will, the deed to the house and the title to her car—the material effects of a routine, middle-class American success story. There was just one other item.
On top of the pile was a weathered document, only four pages and the size of a passport. The outside bears a photo of my mother when she was 11 years old, a little girl with bobbed hair and a big smile. On the inside is her identity information issued by the Deutsche Generalkonsul in Amsterdam in 1937, confirming her status as a German citizen. Across her photo is the Nazi stamp, the eagle and a swastika.
In fact, the German bureaucrat stamped the photo of the little girl twice, and the rest of the page three more times, making a point. And inside the document there is a big, red letter “J,” five times as large as any other print on the page. It stood for “Jude.” Jew.
Of all of her other papers she could have included in the box, my mother chose just this one.
It was a reminder of power wielded over the weak, of nativism and anger, of society steered by tribe not law. For my American mother, the danger was always plain to see.
Mr. Bussey is associate editor of The Wall Street Journal. you cal follow him on twitter @johncbussey
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