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When is it time to leave? The daughter of Holocaust survivors wonders

Growing up, I questioned why my parents hadn’t fled Nazi Germany earlier. Hitler was elected in 1933, yet they stayed six more years.

“Oh, we just thought Hitler was crazy,” my mother said. “We didn’t take him seriously or think he would stay in power very long.”

They only left Germany after my father had been in a concentration camp and my mother in prison, charged with high treason for her and her sister Helga's resistance work.

My younger self couldn’t understand, but for the past five years, I ask myself daily, “How do you know when it's time to leave?”

Anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia — they are all shooting up like geysers everywhere: refugees turned away at borders, allowed to drown on sinking ships, put into detention camps. Synagogue, church, and mosque shootings and bombings. How did we get here 80 years after my parents barely escaped being murdered?

My parents used a strategy of detachment and avoidance to distance themselves from their pain. In 1967, when we visited the city of their birth, not a twitch of emotion pierced their stone facades. For decades, my mother stashed away her sister Helga’s letters from prison, avoiding that wound — a sister she had to leave behind, a sister who was murdered.

I learned from my parents. Unable to find a publisher after translating Helga’s letters in the 1980s, I put them back into storage. Paralyzed by a fear of sinking into a quicksand of grief, I avoided thinking about Helga.

I amassed a collection of books about the Holocaust, but never read them. I conveniently forget Holocaust-related facts and stories, including an explicit description of my father’s time in Buchenwald.

A battle rages between my impulse to avoid and my urge to find the truth. Although that truth feels crucial, as soon as I sense pain, I run. I’m protecting myself, I rationalize. Sometimes avoidance is a good instinct; other times it's dangerous.

After 9/11, when the Patriot Act was passed, my mother sounded the alarm, said it was looking like Germany in the 1930s. I thought she was exaggerating. Now I realize I was avoiding the truth.

Commentator Madelaine Zadik is a resident of Cummington, Massachusetts. Zadik is writing a memoir about her relationship with her aunt, whom she only knows through letters. A longer version of this commentary first appeared and is available at Consequence Forum.