It’s a little book called “Yellow Star.” Not many words. Written for young adults. I found it at a book sale at Rockport Public Library in October. The cover lassoed me. It’s a photo of a small, somber child with cropped, brown hair and clear, brown eyes wearing a double-breasted pinkish coat trimmed in brown velvet. When I was small, I had a similar coat. It was plaid, but the same style and the same kind of collar. It itched my neck. I wore it the Christmas Day I was 5. I know this because my father dated the photo he took, a photo of me with a brand new doll carriage. Mine is a happy picture. The book cover photo is not. On the child’s coat, just above her heart, is a big yellow star and inside the star, in black letters, the word “Jude.”
When the Nazis occupied Europe during World War II, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing when they left their homes. The star was not only to humiliate them but also to make it easy for the Nazis to identify them so that they could be segregated. And taunted. And beaten. And hunted down. And rounded up. And killed.
Also on the cover of this book, at the top, is the word “DISCARD” stamped in capital letters. Books not borrowed routinely get taken off the shelves and sold at book sales. Discard is not personal. The old has to make way for the new. There is nothing wrong with this process. But this word above this picture felt so wrong.
I bought “Yellow Star” and brought it home.
Sylvia Perlmutter, the subject of the book, was 4½ when the Germans invaded her hometown of Lodz, Poland, in 1939. At gunpoint, they rounded up all the Jews, nearly a quarter of a million, forced them to leave their homes, marched them into a ghetto, and locked them behind barbed wire, where there was not enough food or heat or medicine to sustain them, where they were starved and beaten, where many froze to death and many more were packed into trains, which transported them to concentration camps where they were killed. Doctors, teachers, tailors, musicians, students, scientists, lawyers, laborers, mothers, fathers, people no different from you and me.
When the war ended, there were fewer than 800 survivors. Only 12 were children. Sylvia Perlmutter was one.
This is the cost of moral bankruptcy, of people going along to get along, of looking the other way and accepting the unacceptable.
There’s a show on Netflix that’s captivating the country right now. It’s called “Stranger Things” and it’s about a counterworld, an underside, the “Upside Down,” a dark and dangerous dimension where the Demogorgon, who feeds on people, lives.
The series is fake and scary and fun.
It’s also thought provoking. Because the Upside Down is real. It’s Lodz and Auschwitz. Slavery and genocide. Guns and bombs. Oppression and prejudice. Man’s inhumanity to man. And the dangerous and ever-growing conceit that one person is any better than any other. This is the real Demogorgon.
Last Monday there was another terrorist attack in New York. And Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about how what terrorists hate is that though we’re diverse, we are one. “We’re beacons to the world,” he said. “We actually show that societies of many faiths and many backgrounds can work. And our enemies want to undermine that.”
So does any leader who wants to build walls and not bridges. Who, in the name of patriotism, continually divides us, pits us against each other instead of uniting us.
Americans are an amalgam, a collection of cultures and colors, beliefs and behaviors. We yell and scream and argue and pontificate and threaten and rage, but somehow we make things work. Not without struggles. Not without missteps. But at the end of the day, we are one.
“This is the most resilient place on Earth,” de Blasio said. “We’ve proven it time and time again. ... We are going to keep being New Yorkers.”
We need to keep being Americans, looking out for, standing up for, and respecting each other.Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.