I wasn’t that surprised at the “joke” published in the Binghamton Review regarding Ariel Wajnrajch’s piece on Nov.18. I’ve never understood “Campus Presswatch,” the segment in which the joke appeared, because despite passing itself off as a playful jest, it’s nothing more than picking apart and mocking the work of other campus writers. This joke was harmful and hateful to the Jewish community, and they deserve an apology with a clear promise from the Binghamton Review to educate their staff on anti-Semitism.
If you’re wondering why I care so much about this, you shouldn’t listen to me, you should listen instead to Julia. Her story is like that of so many others: hard to hear, but necessary.
Julia Wojcik, my maternal grandmother, was the best seamstress in her village. Her devout Catholic family lived on a farm on the outskirts of that village, many generations in one home. By the time WWII was over, the farm, any amount of savings her family had amassed and nearly half of her family members were gone. Her farm and her young Polish Catholic family and their assistance of Jewish neighbors and resistance members painted large targets on their backs. She entered Dachau with a husband, a baby and another on the way, and left alone. She was able to find her husband and a few family members later, but nothing would ever replace what she lost. Her skill in repairing countless Nazi uniforms while imprisoned is the only reason I’m here today.
One thing that those without a Holocaust survivor in their family may not understand is that their family members’ experiences will go on to shape all of their future days. The horrors my grandmother faced weren’t simply present in her lowest moments, but in her everyday life. When we expanded on our house to make the space better for our growing family, especially as my grandma needed to live with us, she insisted that her part of the house have a basement. She cited “not wanting to catch a cold” as her superstitious reasoning, but deep down we all knew why — to have a place to hide if necessary. For years I would find $50, $20 and $10 bills hidden under placemats and behind cabinet doors, so that there’d always be emergency funds tucked away somewhere. All-out battles would ensue to throw out spoiled food — I’m serious, we would raid her fridge while my mother dragged her to the doctor’s office — because after losing a baby to starvation and living without food security for years, she made sure she’d never go hungry again. Shirts even coming close to exposing her collar bone were never to be worn so as to keep her tattooed numbers hidden. I’d find, attending Binghamton University, that many of my Jewish friends had similar stories.
None of this is to evoke guilt — it’s to remind us all, who cannot fully comprehend the depravity she and many others witnessed, that this tragedy wasn’t so long ago. It wasn’t such a foreign and detached concept. It seems like in movies and television, the Nazis are always the straight-up bad guys, seen as quintessential evil right away, but with no in-depth conversation as to why. We imagine them sitting away in their bunkers, obsessed with anti-Semitism and their ideals of a “perfect race.” Captain America can liberate armies and Aldo Raine can lead his team of soldiers to hunt down Nazi high command, but the reality is that none of of the survivors are “camera-worthy” enough to be truly featured. That’s saved for serious, but brief, classroom discussions or a viewing of “Schindler’s List,” never more addressed in an in-depth manner. Meanwhile, my grandmother and millions of others are buried with tattoos they did not deserve. The Holocaust didn’t suddenly start out of nowhere — it began as the normalization of hate.
If you’re still thinking, “But all this for a joke?” I get what you’re saying, but it’s not that simple. That joke hurt and offended a lot of people at this university and was simply unwarranted. Humor is a way to get us through our days at the best of times and can be used as a thinly veiled excuse for hate at others. In this particular case, it seems, to me, to be just pure ignorance. My grandmother herself found the energy to laugh and find moments of levity despite a trauma-filled past. She would tell stories of her life before the camps and gesture at my sisters and I, an extension of her legacy, laughing, “And this is what Hitler wanted to get rid of? All three with blue eyes and blonde hair, the fool.” In her more dramatic moments she’d get sick and say, “Oh, I think this will be my last Christmas,” to which my sister would say, “Grandma, the Third Reich couldn’t take you down, neither will a cold.” My grandmother would always laugh and admit she was right. She even named her reparation checks from the German government, a well-intentioned but ultimately poor attempt to quantify and amend her suffering, after the monster who orchestrated it all.
The difference between her humor and this recent feeble attempt at a joke? She always laughed at her experiences, her trauma and her pain alone. Every fellow survivor she met, some of whom would end up being her neighbors or those she shared quarters with in Dachau, was treated like family — with kindness, understanding and respect. To her, they were family, and jokes were only exchanged if both parties felt comfortable enough to laugh that day. Her humor is what kept her alive, a lifeline to remind her to hang on despite indescribable pain — not a cheap jab printed in a public paper mocking someone else’s history. You can use humor to cope, sure, but if your humor is based in hurting others, it is nothing but a faint shadow of comedy.
It is important to stand with our Jewish community in times like this. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States, and addressing it is beyond the right thing to do. I’m grateful that the actions of my grandmother have given me ingrained beliefs against hate, be it racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism or any other form of bigotry. No one is perfect, but we have to learn from our mistakes — combatting this kind of ignorance is the first step.
Elizabeth Short is a senior majoring in English and is Opinions Editor at Pipe Dream.