Story vs. story

Seeking a root for the racist narrative 

The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, recently published the names and contact information of Jews living in Flathead County, calling on readers to "take action" against this "vicious, evil race."

My whole life, I knew my grandmother as Mucky. When she was 12, growing up in Germany, my grandmother's two best friends were, like her, named Ilse, a very common German name. She was generous, kind, intentional in her life and actions, determined, with unwavering integrity and a sharp dedication to justice—and she was silly. She made up names for each of her grandchildren—I was Doctor Schnupsi. And at 12, instead of letting teachers call them by their last names, she made up names for herself and each of the other Ilses: Muck, Puck and Schnuck.

That was when she was allowed to go to school. That was when her teacher took a blonde classmate to the front of the class and measured her skull, showed the class her blue eyes, and declared her the perfect Aryan, and when the girl, a Jew, said nothing as she returned to her seat, her eyes on the floor.

My grandmother says she was lucky. She graduated before the Jews were kicked out of school. And by the time she was out of high school, the Ilse she'd named Schnuck would cross the street if she saw my grandmother because she would not share a sidewalk with a Jew. When she used to tell me this story, my grandmother would add, "We don't know what came of Puck." She meant that she didn't know how she was killed—whether in a camp or by an SS officer.

I think often of how this could have happened in so few years. How a child could learn to wish for the death of her best friend.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHARLES WYBIERALA
  • photo by Charles Wybierala

When I watch documentaries, looking for that source, that thing that was awakened in the Nazi being interviewed on screen, looking for what awakened it, the common thread I see is story. The story of the Jew migrating into Europe, an infestation that mirrored the migration of rats. The story of the Jew who took and lent money, of the Jew who ruined the German economy and denigrated the German identity. Even though she knew my grandmother, this classmate learned a narrative from screens and leaders and fear that was able to erase every memory of this sweet, funny, thoughtful girl she had gone to school with.

Before she died, I wrote down many of my grandmother's stories. One memory she repeated was of a clerk at the passport office. She and my grandfather waited for hours to find out whether they would be granted their lives. This was just before the war and just after a neighbor had been released from a camp where he was temporarily held after Kristallnacht. When the SS came back for him, rounding up the young Jewish men again, he went upstairs and hung himself.

This clerk knew my grandparents were escaping illegally and he looked the other way. Nothing more. At the time, this was an act of great bravery, but it always seemed to me to be such a small act. To allow the final bureaucratic step that would save their lives, stamping a thin document from his office where a picture of Hitler hung on the wall. But my grandmother would tell me, each time she told the story, "I want you to know, there were good Germans."

What she meant was that even in the face of the greatest evil, goodness is possible.

We cannot be the ones who cross the street. We cannot be the ones who imagine that the narrative is harmless. We cannot allow that story to grow and to drive the evil in the worst of us up into the light, where it can destroy.

If some men in Whitefish express misplaced hate, that might seem small. But story is a powerful tool. Rage and fear are contagious. These things do not fade on their own. They have to be put out when they are embers or they will become the fire that consumes us.

Sarah Kahn has an MFA in fiction and an MA in literature from the University of Montana. She founded the Free Verse Writing Project, an organization that teaches literature and creative writing in juvenile detention centers across Montana.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Countering narrative"

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