My good friend Hyman and I met outside the gym of a Southern California apartment complex where, at 84, he exercised every day. He’ll be 95 this year but still walks with the pep of a man with things to do.
A single conversation outside that gym in the Obama days led us to having breakfast once a week for the next seven years. At breakfast, Hyman was always optimistic, quick-minded, and brimming with his own special brand of wit and wisdom.
“That little baby looks so sweet you could eat him,” he said, adoringly, in hearing range of a smiling mother holding her baby in the breakfast line. Then he whispered to me: “When they become teenagers, you sometimes wish you had.”
Each Saturday morning we’d talk for hours about history, politics, and the perils and predicaments of Western civilization. I say we talked, but I mostly listened. Born during Calvin Coolidge’s presidency – a time when thousands of Civil War vets and millions of vets from the First World War were still around to swap war stories – Hyman weaved oral history with book history to make sense of the near-century of history he’s actually lived.
Aside from bagels and lox, breakfast was served with a buffet of quips and quotes, tempered over time after witnessing decades of social and political upheavals that shaped, not just him, but the world as we know it:
“The only constituency that honest men need is the truth.”
“Ask people to love, they say, “Why?” Ask them to hate, they say, “Whom?"
“You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.”
“The media has become dishonest. They very often tell lies but, more often, they just don’t tell the truth.”
“Truth doesn’t change but lies – you can twist.”
Hyman and I don’t meet as much, partly due to Gavin Newsom’s COVID restrictions but mostly because I moved an hour away. But when we do talk, our conversations are noticeably different. Hyman’s easy optimism has given way, never to pessimism, but the sober reality that, under Biden, America is in deep trouble.
He sees Biden and his collaborators pushing policies that deliberately wreck law and order – they’ve crippled police, reduced border agents to greeters and babysitters, and waged war on masculinity everywhere, including the military. To keep power, they intentionally stir up hatred against whites, conservatives, the rich, capitalism, guns, and the virtues of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. They’ve worked non-stop to stir up intense hatred – a strategic hatred – for Trump and his supporters and look to institutionalize that hatred using the lopsided January 6 Committee and Biden’s Justice Department. Having bombarded the public with dehumanizing epithets, hundreds of political prisoners have become expendable.
“Nothing about this is normal,” said Geri Perna, aunt of Matthew Perna, a January Sixer who committed suicide in February. “They are out for blood, and they’re winning.”
Under the banner of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” they’re using intimidation and public ridicule to force-feed the illusion that men can get pregnant, that gender is debatable, and that “whiteness” – not behavior – is responsible for the disparities in lagging groups. And, if hating others were not enough, they’re institutionalizing systems that teach whites, including their children, to hate themselves.
Worse, as things fall apart, nothing has been done to match the velocity of the national decay their rotten policies have set into motion.
For Hyman, it’s all been a bit much.
“Please,” he told me over the phone recently, “don’t talk to me about politics.”
For a Jewish man born in the world of 1927 inside Kovno, Lithuania, history is sounding an alarm. In his native Kovno (today Kaunas), the seeds of Jewish hatred were sown long before Russian, then German occupation.
Decades before Hitler’s Great Action and Final Solution, Lithuanians were being conditioned to treat Jews as expendable – a mass social conditioning that eventually wore down their moral inhibitions. Expendable didn’t always mean that Lithuanians hated Jews; it also meant that when bad things happened to them, people just didn’t care.
Even when the mass murders began – much of it by Lithuanian partisans sympathetic to Germany – a populace that was initially shocked by the butchery was, over time, numbed into collaborating with, or committing, rituals of humiliation and outright genocide.
“We were all assembled in our living room in complete disbelief,” wrote William W. Mishell in Kaddish For Kovno (1988) of his firsthand account of suddenly being rounded up by heavily armed Lithuanian partisans before Nazis took the city. “Only two days prior we were free and equal citizens in our hometown and now suddenly, we were totally devoid of any rights, prey for any hooligan. … [W]e were suddenly more afraid of our yesterday’s neighbors, people with whom we had lived for generations, than of the Germans.”
It is through firsthand accounts, like Mishell’s, that we get a bigger picture of the conditions that had to be created before genocide was possible.
“For it is their voices that reveal what was known and what could be known,” wrote Saul Friedlander in Nazi Germany and the Jews. “[T]heirs were the only voices that conveyed the clarity of insight and the total blindness of human beings confronted with an entirely new and utterly horrifying situation.”
Of the roughly 30,000 Jews in Kovno, 90 percent were “liquidated,” including members of Hyman’s close family.
But Hyman’s father had heeded the early warning signs and, in 1929, moved to South Africa, built a butchery business and sent for his family in 1931. Hyman became a lawyer, then a commercial real estate broker and moved his family to America after political instability in South Africa jeopardized his children’s future.
Having witnessed the most industrially and culturally advanced nation, Germany, decay into abject barbarism, Hyman has a built-in early warning system that takes the alarms blaring in America seriously. It’s not the full-blown “Holocaust” that trips the alarm but the years of conditioning that lead to it.
“When evil men get into power, it is because men of goodwill ignore them – until it is too late,” said Hyman.
In America, alarms have been growing louder and going unheeded for two years now. But having witnessed much darker days, Hyman, quoting Winston Churchill, still believes in America.
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing,” he said, “after they’ve tried everything else."