Surviving Auschwitz, Resisting Trump, Staying Open
This week visiting home, I’m pulled to revisit some family papers. Today, under Trump’s ascendancy, I am the exact same age as my maternal grandfather was when Hitler rose to power. Maybe there’s something in here I can use.
Grim, stiff-jawed, I review the delicate handwriting, the difficult names. Auschwitz. Dachau. Buchenwald. Following his initial arrest on Kristallnacht, my Opa was shuffled for the next seven years among some of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps. His skills as an auto mechanic made him valuable enough to keep alive for a while. (Noting: white nationalists like Trump might tolerate a certain population of enemy races as long as they’re performing cheap labor. Jaw and chest continue to tighten.)
Next, I pull out the copy of his old passport. It’s dated 1945, shortly after liberation from the death camps. I’ve seen this photo multiple times before, but suddenly I notice something new.
A small smile.
The eyes — dark-ringed and haggard behind wire-rimmed glasses — show a story I know, the pain and haunting I’ve come to expect. But now I also see: this guy’s got a Mona-Lisa kind of thing going on.
The war is over, and he survived. Most of his family was killed, but he lived.
He would go on to marry my Oma, have two children, cross the Atlantic Ocean on a refugee ship. On colonized land in California he would root for the Dodgers, join a union, and die peacefully in his own home at the age of 93.
I don’t know what he was thinking and feeling in 1945. But I do know that I was carrying assumptions that blocked me from fully beholding him.
Holocaust = All Bad, Every Minute, Ever After.
No Room For Smiles Anywhere In These Artifacts.
Not totally unreasonable, right? And yet, when I slow down and loosen my grip on my own preconceptions, an entirely different face appears. I gain a greater intimacy with reality. And that means a better ability to respond.
Can we wake up together
by opening to the unexpected?
The Buddha’s teachings help me realize, over and over, that there’s more to life than my habituated mind tends to anticipate.
This is extremely useful to remember, particularly in social justice realms where it’s easy to get fixated on a roller coaster of highs and lows. One minute we’re celebrating a precious, hard-won victory; the next we’re reeling from evidence of human cruelty and impending doom for countless species. It’s all real! And it’s exhausting. We’re like the poor, jerked-around neighbor in the Zen parable of the farmer who lost his horse.
One day, an elderly farmer’s only horse ran away. His neighbor came over to offer condolences, but the farmer replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
Sure enough, the next day the horse returned, followed by other wild horses it had befriended. Now the neighbor offered congratulations — what good luck! “Who knows what’s good or bad,” came the same reply.
The next day, while trying to train the new horses, the farmer’s son was thrown, breaking his leg. “Such a shame,” said the neighbor. Same answer from the farmer: “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
And of course, a week later, soldiers arrived in the town to conscript young men for war. The broken leg saved the farmer’s son from being drafted.
In a dangerous Donald Trump era, Buddhist wisdom makes no false promises of triumph, nor does it prescribe specific policy solutions. What it can do is help us to remain awake, compassionate, and willing to keep going.
This is no small thing. For those of us drawn to social justice, the ability to hold steady amidst uncertainty might improve our movement contributions in key ways.
1. Wiser News Consumers
When we are awake, compassionate, and willing to keep going, we can listen more deeply for what’s missing from the news. We can gradually identify which sources we trust, and why. We can seek out hidden voices from Syria, for instance, persistently sifting through oversimplified, Good-vs-Evil news narratives coming out of Aleppo, and connecting with stories and analysis from Syrians themselves, in pursuit of freedom.
2. Humbler and Smarter Tacticians
When we are awake, compassionate, and willing to keep going, we can evaluate our strategies more soundly. We can admit when certain tactics will not work! Flooding Trump’s Muslim registry with decoy signups from allies, an idea that gained traction among tens of thousands of non-Muslim progressives for a minute, turns out to be infeasible. Even President Obama’s move to dismantle the precursor to a Muslim registry is “largely symbolic.”
Still, we don’t despair. Humility and honesty about what doesn’t quite work frees us up to pursue what does.
This applies to our inner life, too. Sometimes we cling to dysfunctional strategies for happiness: insatiable craving for what’s pleasant; cyclical misery over what’s unpleasant; or sticking our head in the sand to avoid it all. Bit by bit, as we let go of these patterns, we find release. We become a little more free to discover deeper, unconditioned forms of liberation.
3. Better Friends, Cooperators, and Accomplices
When we are awake, compassionate, and willing to keep going, we can show up more fully in our social movement relationships. Relationships, after all, form the foundation of trust for all our efforts toward peace and justice. Awakening in compassion is already showing up in profound ways, all around us.
U.S. veterans kneeling and apologizing to Indigenous elders at Standing Rock for participating in Native genocide.
Organizing and truth-telling by incarcerated people and their families, inspiring activists of all walks to heal toxic cultures of punishment and disposability.
Coming to terms with our human-induced Sixth Mass Extinction, fueled by violent industrial growth and addiction to conquest. Can we ever make amends with all the precious forms of life our systems will wipe out?
Let’s not assume the worst, give up, and shut down.
Let’s also not encase our hearts in ossified optimism, rigidly insisting that things will work out.
Slowing down, paying close attention, and holding one another, let’s ready ourselves for the unexpected — including room for small, surprising smiles even in the hard times.
Katie Loncke is a writer, speaker, facilitator, and Co-Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. She is a descendant of Afro-Caribbeans who survived the Middle Passage; Jews who survived the Holocaust; and women of indomitable spirit. Her writing has appeared in The Jizo Chronicles, The Buddhist Channel, make/shift magazine, and most recently in the anthology A Thousand Hands: A Guidebook to Caring for Your Buddhist Community, published through Sumeru books.