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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Four

Photo of Andrew Geher and Tiernan McCarthy-Kenney © copyright Jack Hyland 2020, with permission.



What We Choose to See



I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.

                         Donna Tartt, The Secret History


Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, Grow."


The Talmud



Andrew Geher and friends are cleaning up a dead zone, as deep and dark as a pit, cavernous and hidden, behind the local MacDonald's on Main Street in the small town where I live, New Paltz, NY.   It's an unofficial dumping ground and, possibly, a homeless encampment. In the past that would have been hard to believe in this affluent town, less so now that the pandemic has decimated so many jobs.  Andrew was walking by the site with his friends, a walk he's made often, but this time he saw the mess. This shock of recognition—the realization that our landscapes as well as our bodies can be compromised, trashed, or destroyed—stayed with him.


"I'd had a quiet, introspective few weeks when classes were suspended in the spring," Andrew told me in a phone conversation. A performer specializing in musical theater, going silent could have been especially difficult, but Andrew relished it. Both his dad and his sister had come down with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined in their respective rooms, both were very ill, though not hospitalized. They recovered, but it wasn't an easy time.


Still in his junior year of high school, Andrew didn't have his driver's license yet so he made plans with friends to walk masked and distanced around town, a safe way to get out and hang out.  Teenagers talking and walking. And then, one day, they passed the site and Andrew decided he'd organize a clean-up and posted an invitation on the community Facebook page. In addition to a cohort of personal friends, about a dozen of the local citizenry showed up, young and old, including Andrew's dad who was hauling a couch up a steep embankment when I arrived on a warm day in August.


Life for all of us has changed beyond all our imaginings; we all have been afflicted and challenged in particular ways.  Andrew and his friends will be entering their senior year of high school on Zoom, so the initial clean-up and a spin-off project is a give-back to the community, a broader, ambitious activism, and a way to stay sane and connected during the still difficult months ahead.  


On his new website,,  Andrew says that he hopes to inspire his generation to be part of the solution, not the problem.  He deserves encouragement, support and applause.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Three

With thanks to Hailey Mohland Kopf for permission to use this adorable photo of her son, Griffin, reading to his fur-bro, Cairo.



Slow Reading


It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

― George Orwell, 1984



I have two friends and a NY Times celebrity "friend" (Michelle Goldberg) who are all reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light. I treated myself to a hardback edition for my birthday at Inquiring Minds, an independent bookstore in town where I'd had my "Say Nothing" reading. I went there on the Monday of the very week in March—March 9th—we went into lockdown. By Wednesday I was teaching my NYU class remotely and awkwardly. I didn't start the book until many weeks later. There was too much to do, too much to think about; I couldn't settle to fiction. And Mantel's devices and language are difficult; she's an innovative writer. I manage about five pages a day at the end of the day, usually on the deck in the fading light. I take up my chair, some water, my phone and my exhaustion, not only from a day of work, but from all the bits and pieces of life's challenges we must sift and organize every day during this pandemic, intensified again since the SUNY students are back on campus and many are walking around unmasked. I watch the vultures, eagles and hawks hunt in the orchard, set the Pandora to medieval music, and begin to read the odd words and unfamiliar syntax at a painstaking pace, savoring every phrase and sentence. The book is over 700 pages. Yesterday I hit Page 413. The Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell has organized a marriage for his son, Gregory. The woman in question thought she was going to marry Thomas Cromwell himself, a wishful misunderstanding. Several pages ensue of embarrassment and Cromwellian charm and manipulation. It's riveting. And though I am sure that an actor reading this sequence would bring it to life in his or her own way, I relish the voices surfacing in my imagination without the mediation of a professional reader. The connection between an author's words on the page and another writer reading these words is instantaneous. It enables us to reflect on how a book is made, and what choices the writer has made to tell the story.

I am usually a fast reader—I can even speed read—but have not always been a fast reader, much less a reader. I don't think my parents ever had time or inclination to read to me when I was a child. I do remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries to my baby sister and enjoying that experience, but it wasn't really until my first boyfriend started throwing books at me during the summer before I started college that I took the purpose of reading seriously. His name was Steve, and if he's out there somewhere, I thank him, both for the love affair and for the books. The glove compartment of his rickety Renault was overflowing with paperbacks. The usual conversation between teens in love, whatever that might be, didn't interest him, and it didn't interest me. His parents were chicken farmers—educated, political chicken farmers. I didn't get them then; I do now. They were blacklisted and were hiding out in Tom's River, NJ. Alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, the books in the glove compartment had titles I'd never heard of before, such as The Ugly American, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. That book led me to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and beyond. That is what books do: they lead us from one subject to another, from one thinker to another. Knowledge accrues, curiosity is stimulated, our world widens.

Recently, a high school senior told me that he doesn't read very much, and he doesn't listen to audio books, either. Even some of my NYU students confess that they only read articles online; they rarely hold a book in their hands. I am troubled by the dearth of knowledge implied in this revelation, especially at a moment in our history when propaganda rather than fact and considered opinion floods our media. A functioning democracy requires an educated, deep-thinking population, as well as educators who demand commitment and rigor in the classroom, whether it is virtual or real.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two

Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young child in 1955. When he refused to patent his vaccine, he was dubbed "the people's scientist."


The Anti-Vaxxers



Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.

I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.


And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.

My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.


Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?

Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.

People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit (link is external)or and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-One

In 2017, construction workers in Copenhagen found ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen--mosaics and menus--during the renovation of a restaurant on the same site. Roman oven-baked flat-bread was served with a variety of toppings.



Conversations About Pizza in a Plague Year



We're here because this moment demands an explanation.


Michael Barbaro, The NY Times Daily


It's not often I have an opportunity to converse about pizza while ordering a curbside pick-up from the pharmacy. I didn't tell the man who was gathering my order that I was eager to have a conversation even though I am on the phone a lot and have a shelter-in-place partner. I love to talk and to ask lots of questions. Connection is my occupation; I'm a curious journalist. The pandemic has slowed me down. I don't like it. No wonder I've become addicted to M&Ms. I always include two bags with my order, a staple since #covidcurbsidepickup began. I wanted to make sure the M&Ms were in the bag. Had I forgotten to mention them? "No, you didn't," he said. "They're right here." Of course, pharmacy guy also knows my name as I'm a regular and he has to take my credit card. And his name, well I know it, but won't mention it here, I'm too distracted. Please note, dear reader: there is nothing unusual about distraction during a pandemic.

The conversation about pizza began because I had a torn green bag--a giveaway from a local pizza parlor-- on the front seat, and long ago, in another life, I'd had a conversation with this selfsame man gathering my pharmacy order about pizza and how pizza always arrives in a cardboard box, which is environmentally correct. The "no plastic bag law" had gone into effect in our town before the pandemic, but it is now all but forgotten. Plastic bags everywhere. The proprietor of my favorite pizza parlor had bought a bunch of green canvas bags logo-ed in big white letters with his personal name, which is also the name of the pizza parlor: Rino's. Rino's is in the same mall as Ignite, the gym we can no longer enter. I know Rino—we both preferred the same bike at the gym when the word "gym" was still in our morning lexicon—and sometimes he was using it when I arrived for a work-out, and sometimes I was using it when he arrived. He made good pizza. I liked his pizza. And even though the new canvas bags were thin and ripped easily, I didn't complain.

The guy at the pharmacy had never agreed about the quality of Rino's pizza. He reiterated this critique during our #covidcurbsidepickup conversation, and I replied with compliments: "Rino has been doing a great job with deliveries during the pandemic, albeit he's using plastic bags." I said. But the pharmacy guy grew up in Brooklyn. "The only good pizza is made in Brooklyn," he said, yet again, not referring to the backslide into plastic bags.

"The crust is too thin," the pharmacy guy continued.

"Oh, you still only like thick crust?" I asked. "You haven't changed your mind?"

"Thin crust is okay when there is a lot of stuff on it," he reminded me.

"But what if you don't want a lot of stuff on it? Just cheese? Or just veggies?"

"Well, then, I guess a thin crust is okay."

"So, you agree with me after all?" I said.

"I don't eat veggie pizza," the guy said.

I was prolonging the conversation. I didn't want to get back to work or find out what volcano had erupted in the Senate that day. But the guy was eager to get on with his next order. I was taking too much of his time and it was all on the phone, whereas our previous conversation about pizza had taken place F2F. It's easy to linger F2F and delay a good-bye. Now there was a line of cars behind me at the curb waiting for their pick-ups, so I said, "Okay, I don't have anything else to say about pizza right now." Some conversations don't last long. A conversation about pizza during a pandemic is one of them.





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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty

With thanks to Marika Cinque Condos for permission to use her photo, "Birds Awaiting the Storm @ Montauk."






A new Cold War-like atmosphere is engulfing science. The science we need to solve world problems like pandemics and challenges from climate change cannot be achieved without politically neutral agendas where the global public good is paramount.


– Helle Porsdam, Professor of Law and Humanities and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights at the University of Copenhagen




We have just recovered from a fast-moving, fierce, too-early- in- the-season hurricane, Hurricane Isaias. It ripped down trees and wires, knocked out power and cable. Like the arrival of a dread, still mysterious virus, our 21st century digital lives were upended. If we are poor, our lives continue to upend. Hardship on top of hardship.

When I was a kid in New York City, I always wanted to watch the hurricanes arriving. All up and down West End Avenue, canopies were taken down and, on Broadway, protections raised on plate glass windows. I could hardly contain my excitement that I'd have a day off school. Weather drama. Hurricane Holiday. But storms have worsened, and drama is not what we want or need any more, especially during a pandemic. The two events are scientifically connected; it's long past time to pay attention.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center started naming hurricanes in the early 1950s. Now, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN agency with 193 member countries, generates the list of hurricane names--male and female these days-- and oversees the global response to climate change and the effects of climate change.

"Still no internet here," I wrote on my FB page the morning after the storm as I answered posts from near and far. Like COVID, everyone's experience was different, on a spectrum of "sheltering in a basement with two cats" to "not much, a mild case." It's a reminder that every human life and circumstance is of concern, no story to be disregarded. When a storm or a pandemic hits one country and one family, it hits us all.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Nine

Photo of a sunset © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020



Sunsets & Flowers



The human spirit creates freedom.


 -Ben Okri



And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.


                                        -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince



When most news is still bad news, I notice that sunsets and flowers get the most FB and Instagram hits, whereas more serious posts do not. It is as though, by reading them, we risk defeat, we risk unremitting sorrow. Sufferation, the Jamaicans call it. Best not allow the bad news to saturate our spirits. Take a road trip, break bubbles and pods to visit family across state lines, why not? Settle into a big book and read slowly contemplating every word, savoring each phrase. Inside the book there is no danger, no denial. Stay very still. Shut the pundits down. Go for a walk. Admire the sunsets and flowers.


Why this sardonic prologue today rather than a story or an interview? Because, dear reader, I have two beloved friends in nursing homes, and the autistic son of another is in an institution, and I am full of unremitting sorrow for them and their families. On a drive up the mountain for a distance swim with my daughter in her pond the other day, I missed these friends who have unwittingly become "inmates," and thought, "When will I ever see them again? And will they survive this pandemic?" The radio was tuned to 94.3, "light" FM. I wailed:  I'm never gonna let you go/ I'm gonna hold you in my arms forever,,,


There is something here, as I write, that feels helpful as I surface from these dark thoughts, as well as two difficult encounters, one with a neighbor, the other at the pool—masks, distance, protocols, compliance—endless conversations. Both incidents were verging on violence, the one physical, the other verbal, though there was threat in both. And though I consider myself a citizen journalist, I never expect disrespect, or worse; incivility and hatred always take me by surprise. But America is aflame with rage and accusation.


What would my observant, kind friend Harmer have said as I recounted these incidents? What would my astute no nonsense friend Josephine have said? I remember the last time I saw them both and cherish those penultimate, or ultimate, face-to-face conversations, over lunch, over dinner, arms around one another in a warm good-bye.


I lament the callous disregard of the regime in Washington that has prolonged the separation of friends and family and endangered all of us. Only a vaccine and a vigorous and protected election will set us free.



This post is dedicated to Harmer Johnson, Josephine Feagley and Gerard's TJ.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Photo: Margaret Sanger

The Take-Down; Margaret Sanger, My Mother & Me



I plan to be a mother some day. 'Til then I'm using the Pill.

Planned Parenthood Poster


The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.

                   -Karen Seltzer, CEO Planned Parenthood, New York City



My mother worked pro bono at least one day a week at the Margaret Sanger clinic in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist responsible for exams, pap smears, birth control information, fitting diaphragms and, eventually, artificial inseminations for women unable to become pregnant. The clinic served all women—it was a clinic--and women of all colors, ethnicities, immigrant status, and economic status waited their turn to be seen by the medical staff. I went there as a college student, age 17, for my first diaphragm. I didn't need anyone's permission; I went on my own on a day my mother was not there. My memory is that the clinic had a sliding scale and that I paid $10. I sat in the waiting room feeling proud and free. Then I told my mother I'd been for my first gynecological check-up and she was proud of me.

Margaret Sanger—born in 1897—was already living in Tucson when my mother began to work at the flagship clinic, but occasionally came to visit, introduced herself to the staff, attended a meeting, and disappeared. She was a heroine to my emancipated, European doctor mother whose uncle Arnold, a socialist in the tradition of European Democratic Socialism, was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna. Sanger was also a socialist. She believed, as did my mother, that clinics serving women of all backgrounds are mandated to deliver medical care fairly and indiscriminately. The concept of "concierge" medicine would have horrified my mother, though a privileged upper-middle class lifestyle supported by a private practice, did not horrify her. No person is all one thing. Nor was Margaret Sanger. Layered through her courageous feminist activism are ideas about selective breeding; she was a eugenicist. We cannot revise or erase the words she wrote or spoke over many years. Nor is it enough to say that these ideas were common at the time they were expressed; or that they were heedless. Racist ideas are dangerous. They incite violence; they legitimate genocide. I do not know if my mother or the other workers in the clinic were aware of Sanger's eugenicist ideas or discussed them. As a refugee from genocide, and a trained physician, I doubt my mother would have entertained them in any way, or given them scientific credence.

The decision to change the name of the Manhattan clinic, and to remove a Margaret Sanger street name, arrives amid an unrelenting right-wing campaign against a woman's right to choose and the essential medical services offered by Planned Parenthood. I understand its' necessity at this profound moment of correction in American historical narratives, but removing monuments is always fraught, and this one feels personal to me.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Seven

Photo of a Homemade Dreamcatcher ©copyright by Carol Bergman 2020



Dreamy Sex in a Plague Year



The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it."


-Hilary Mantel, "Bring Up The Bodies"






 -Jenny Holzer,  "The New Disease Came"



I dreamt I was meeting a Cuomo for a tryst in a New York City hotel, re-opened for government officials. But there was a problem: I couldn't remember which Cuomo. Was it Mario—no he's dead—or Chris or Andrew? Either one of those Cuomo boys would be okay by me. The dream ended before the tryst began, however, and when I told my husband of many years about it, he broke into hysterics and said, "New York Loving. That PR slogan sank in." Then he passed the anecdote along to his table tennis group on a group message, and they added to the riff with sexy dreams they were willing to share, or made up, and we continued laughing for a good long time, the blood oxygenated, our spirits raised.


Boy, do we need this! Not to mention the satisfaction of baking a good loaf of bread. I admire all the Facebook portraits of loaves. Bread, the staff of life. I don't bake and I hardly cook, recipes are lost on me, I live on salads and scrambled eggs, some tofu, and once-a-week, for the omegas, a can of sardines. So, I couldn't get over-excited when my husband announced he was going to buy a Ninja—an indoor barbecue-- which, by the way, he reassured me, also can grill vegetables. Okay, I'd seen the ad on TV. On the first day he used it he air-fried French fries with parmesan cheese and parsley—that is a recipe, now you have it—and they were completely delicious. Not only dreamy dreams, but dreamy food.


We are confused creatures, and we become even more confused when we are under siege. And we are under siege. Indoor barbecues? Really? A friend sent a video of two guys walking the boardwalk in a Southern California town. One of the young, buff guys was carrying a sign, "Free Masks," and the other had a box loaded with free masks. They were dudes, they were friendly, but it made no difference. Not only was their offer declined, it stirred hatred, abuse, and physical threats. I sent it round. "This explains a lot," I wrote, "and it is also horrifying."  An English psychologist friend replied, "What is wrong with your educational system?"


Good question. Now for a test. What's your answer, dear reader?


Finally, the lesson of the dreams and fantasies with which I began this blog post have come to rest in a different kind of desire: an end to vigilance and restraint, a continuing appetite for life, a good meal with friends sitting shoulder to shoulder, a long embrace with loved ones on faraway continents, and a smart, empathetic president.  

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Six

Photo: Un petit tree frog is lost without her dear friend, M. Toad.

© copyright by Carol Bergman 2020 taken @ The Hilltop Homestead Pond



Mon Ami M. Crapaud (My Friend M. Toad)


I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you as a friend. Arnold Lobel, "Days with Frog and Toad"

Le crapaud, my personal French word of the day. It seems fitting, thank you, French word of the day peeps, not just because of the prefix—crap—but because the image of le crapaud, gnarled and bloated and swampy, its neck heaving with intakes and out blasts of breath is apt. But I mis-speak. According to Arnold Lobel toads are very caring friends and neighbors. Even more importantly, they choose to wear masks during the pandemic even though they don't need to wear masks; they are immune to the disease of a devolving human civilization. They will just continue their evolutionary way, with or without us—humans.

Unless we have booked a vaca somewhere much further north in a land far, far away beyond the still-closed Canadian border, we continue to live a swampy and congealed life. But please, note—flights are cheap. We can get away. Or we can travel in our cars and RVs and cross into New York State, from Florida, par example, and bring the virus with us. Why not? What's a $2K fine if we are turned in for not filling in the form, or lying on the form we are asked to fill in--VIVA the HONOR SYSTEM! Keep in mind also, dear traveler, contact tracers will find you if you get sick and make others sick.

Plus ça change, M. Toad. Are you available for a brief interview? Ah, good, I will record your answers.

Moi: Let's begin with Viva L'America! Viva! Well done, America! Are you in a bubble with some toadlets, M. Toad? So far as I know, my readers are no longer toadlets. Toadlets are bouncing on their trampolines and driving their parents nuts. Toadlets miss their friends but they adapt quickly to new circumstances. I do not have any toadlets in my immediate circle, but I do watch a few from afar and I am convinced that the pandemic will recede into their personal history, and return as history in memoir, fiction, and poetry. This I say as a writer. Croyez-moi.

So, why toads today? In my toad-like stupor this morning I realized that we have a plumbing issue and will need a worker in the apartment to fix it. It goes to show, M. Toad, we cannot prepare for all eventualities. Do you have any wisdom for me? A list of revised, scientific protocols, per chance? And, most importantly, when will these diversions end, M. Toad? Because I need a nap every single day.

M. Toad: A toad-like stupor? Oh, Heavens, NO, NO, NO, Madame, mon cher ami. I am a perspicacious toad. Here is my prediction: The diversion will end next January in the Human Year 2021, upon which day the red-faced mutation in the WH will be pushed into the self-made swampy weeds surrounding said WH and suffocate. We will be under new management. The continent of America will once again be one entity, a nation under, protected within, if you get my drift. Universal protocols will be applied and enforced. All will be well.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Five

Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2020  


Restorative Justice in One Small Town



You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chYapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. 


                      -Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me"



You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure, for a poet remembers.


-Czeslaw Milosz


We had been in Vienna for several days—my mother, my daughter and I—when we finally found the Monument Against War and Fascism, unveiled by the Austrian government on November 24, 1988. Its German title is somewhat different: Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus. Mahnmal means warning or reminder. Its central image is of an old Jew crouching down on his hands and knees scrubbing stones, a memory my mother held in her sympathetic nervous system every day of her survivor's life. Her mother, my grandmother, Nanette, had been forced onto her hands and knees on her way home from work just days after the German invasion. She had survived that ordeal, only to be murdered in Auschwitz together with most of our family. That death camp is the only monument that means anything to me, but I was curious how the Austrians, who had come late to redress, conceptualized a monument against Faschismus and murder.

A sign, hidden behind some bushes too far away from the sculpture for most people to notice reads, in German: The first to fall victim to the Nazi regime were political opponents and Jews. After 12 March 1938, many Jews were forced out of their homes and into the streets to clean away political slogans. The figure of the kneeling Jew is to remind us of these acts of humiliation.


This "act of humiliation," a euphemism, was the first overt violent action by the Nazis in the reign of terror; it escalated quickly to genocide.

Signage is important, and I wondered why this one had not been updated to reflect changes in Austria's moral compass as a member of a socially conscious EU. Perhaps the insular Austrian bureaucrats still imagine that they were victims rather than willing perpetrators.

The front of the square is bordered by the "Gates of Violence," carved from the granite that thousands of prisoners carried over the "stairs of death" at the Mauthausen death camp. And there are other stones here, too, smaller stones visitors have placed on the old Jew's back, an iconic stereotype embedded in European history.

It was summer and there were travelers from all over the world gathering around the monument, but no Austrians. We were outliers, visitors from another dimension. I'd read somewhere that late at night punks and runaways sit on the old Jew's back. I didn't dare return to witness this desecration, but the next morning I called Dr. Bernhard Denscher, at the time Head of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Vienna. "In my opinion this work of art should be more than just a tourist sight," he told me in perfect English. "It should provide food for thought and incite the beholder to pause and linger." My thought exactly.

This story came back to me this morning as I took my walk along Huguenot St. in New Paltz, NY: the sign at the African American burial ground has been repainted. It is now brighter and more noticeable. It sits in front of a "monument" of stone, a bench with a thick iron chain at its base. The bench has been there a while, now the sign stands in high relief, the story of enslavement by the Huguenot, English and Dutch settlers in New Paltz crushed into a small space, there for all to read and ponder, and for the descendants of slaves to visit as a sacred space. My only quibble is that the word "founded" was not changed as the land we live on was inhabited by the Lenape Nation before the settlers arrived, and was stolen from them.

Still, it's an important renewal, one that reflects the national discourse about monuments, Black Lives Matter, and the cultural changes we are navigating amid the horrific pandemic. I wish all my fellow citizens—here in this small town, and throughout the United States—continuing fortitude and an open heart during the painful but essential reckoning with our past.

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