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Politics Not as Usual

Politics Not as Usual

As Holocaust refugees, my parents cherished their right and civic duty to vote.


What is it about an upcoming presidential election that gets some of us fired up but leaves others to roll their eyes for months on end?  And, why is it that fewer than 50% of eligible Americans actually vote?

Growing up the child of Holocaust survivors in the 50s, I distinctly remember the heated debates that took place in the run up to the presidential elections. Not between the candidates, but among the heavily accented, greenhorn immigrants who comprised my family.  The passionate discussions would inevitably center around which candidate would be better for the economy, which better to contain the Russian communists and, of course, who would be a better friend of Israel and the Jews. 

Invariably my father would be of one opinion, my grandfather another and each of my uncles would chime in with views number three and four, in the choice between just two candidates!  The womenfolk would knowingly smile about the pointlessness of it all as they refilled cups with steaming tea, thinking it was all in good fun, and besides, it kept the men out of the kitchen, to boot.

As they argued, the candidates would come to life in our living room.  Eisenhower vs. Stevenson, Kennedy vs. Nixon, Johnson vs. Goldwater and Nixon vs. Humphrey, each match seemed an epic battle between American heroes and statesmen, high minded public servants all.  Were my folks, with their passionate debates and endless political discussions, naïve?  Most certainly.  After all, it marked a far less cynical time in American history. But there was something more important happening beneath the surface.

These people had just survived the brutal totalitarianism of Joseph Stalin and the genocide of European Jewry by Adolph Hitler, may their names be erased.  They witnessed their children, brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents tortured and murdered by governments, armies and people with absolute power. They were completely helpless as they watched all that was precious to them viciously annihilated.   There was no way to voice their anguish, no avenue to pursue justice and no path to beat to the nearest media outlet. 

As they arrived in New York, everything changed.  They discovered democracy.

They were as powerless as any human could be.

But as they passed Lady Liberty and arrived in the port of New York, everything began to change. No longer would the words “official” and “government” inspire terror. Instead they would begin to represent a strange, but wonderful new idea: democracy.

These proud, recently naturalized American Jews had a deep appreciation for freedom, human rights and most of all representative government. To a Holocaust survivor, the words of the American Declaration of Independence were a tonic and elixir:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Judaism places a great emphasis upon hakarat hatov, which literally means “recognizing the good,” carefully noting and appreciating every blessing in our lives.  Recognizing the good leads to humility, fulfillment, happiness and love of God.  But sometimes recognizing the good can be challenging, especially when we live in a society of unparalleled materialism. It is easy to take abundance for granted when there is no real starvation and hunger with which to contrast it.

As refugees, my parents did not take for granted the greatness of the United States of America. They sang her praises, appreciated her freedoms, embraced her economic opportunities and, above all, cast their votes in every single election, no matter how trivial or inconsequential.  They excitedly exercised their right to participate in the greatest democracy the world had known.  They saw it as a civic duty and obligation.   And, unlike the vast majority of jaded Americans who take liberty for granted and simply do not vote, they cherished the notion that they had a say -- equal to anyone else in the entire country -- in how America would be led and managed. 

They loved America.  They loved freedom.  They could not fathom anyone ever missing an opportunity to participate in democracy by not voting.  And because of that, they relished the opportunity to talk politics.

Go figure. Better yet, go vote.

January 7, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 6

(4) vera dunn, January 18, 2012 12:40 PM

voting is compulsory in Australia

This certainly resonates with me as I am also a child of holocaust survivors and also refugees from communism in Eastern Europe.Frankly, I cannot understand why voting is not compulsory in all elections in both the USA and Israel, like it is in Australia. A peraon can always vote informal if they really are unwilling to vote for any candidate but at least they have to turn up and think about their vote.Mostly, voters do register a preference. How else can a government really represent the people?

(3) Emmy, January 9, 2012 11:57 AM

memory of voting

I, too, am a daughter of immigrants to America, a father who came before WWII and a mother who came after surviving Auschwitz. I recall our whole family dressing up in Shabbat clothing and walking together to our local public school to vote on Election Day, grateful to a country that allowed Jews to be full citizens. Though today I am blesed to live in Israel, I retain my feelings of hakarat hatov to the country that took my parents in and gave them opportunities to live and raise a frum Jewish family.

(2) gershom, January 8, 2012 5:21 PM

I am disgusted, not jaded.

The fact I have not voted is actually a vote: I am disguted with all the candidates, who are criminal for ignoring the constitution and existing laws. In Vegas, I try to pick a winner; in the ballot booth, I vote for a good person. None-of-the-above is not an option. So no vote bt me. A criminal wins. The same situation as in 1932 Germany and the USSR, except we have several bad ones to choose from. We deserve it.

Marion, January 8, 2012 11:04 PM

so find a candidate that you approve of

Please vote, for any one on the ballot. Even a person with no chance of winning, even a third party candidate. Not voting takes away your right to an opinion. A vote of conscience, even a write-in, states your opinion in a powerful way.

Andy, January 9, 2012 4:13 AM

Gershon, Jaded is too mild

The current crop of candidiates for high office in the US may be lacking as Statesmen of great intergrity, but to compare them to 1932 Germany/Hitler and the former USSR /Stalin is not jaded, it's delusional. I that pray you and the rest of the citizens in the US never have to realize by comparison how blessed you are living in a relative Disneyland.That seems to me to be the point of the article which the survivors appreciated.

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