James Russell
This Land was Your Land, This Land was My Land, p.4

One reason Lindbergh, or somebody like him, did not win in 1940 is that anti-fascists of many ethnic backgrounds united in this country to expose and fight an evil that, even though it threatened only some at first, spelled doom in the end for all. When I was a boy, I was told that a relative of mine by marriage, John Armstrong (a kinsman of General Custer), helped rip down the swastika flag from the Bremen when it was docked in New York harbor in 1935. John, the quiet blond publisher married to cousin Willa? Yes. He had not been much older than me when he did it. Richard Puette (Uncle Dick), son of a North Carolina family of Protestant preachers, organized sailors for the National Maritime Union, and volunteered for the dangerous Murmansk convoys to help our Soviet allies. When he and Aunt Sophie were blacklisted and nearly destitute, they often found a bag of food on their doorstep early in the morning: the gift of Finnish fishermen who said little but saw everything.

These are just small examples of how people fought fascism by uniting and organizing to fight for civil rights, fair wages and working conditions and to oppose fascist aggression, racism and antisemitism: in Nazi Germany, in invaded Ethiopia, in the American South, and in New York City. That struggle is not over: there’s a straight line from the genteel Nazism on that Wyoming ranch to the fag jokes to Prof. Harvey Mansfield of Harvard telling the Colorado legislature that gays are inherently criminal to Matt Shepard’s blood a year later on a Laramie fence to Samuel Huntington telling us who does and doesn't belong in America. The hellish core of Roth’s nightmare is this fear: We don't belong, and we are alone. Jews have been maneuvered into such isolation too often. Progressive movement politics in America, in the 1930's and the 1960's, united diverse groups under common causes. They became a bulwark against fascism here before the War; and after it they effected vast social change that liberated and benefited millions of the disfranchised and dispossessed. The Movement had more than its fair share of faults, but at its best, no one was alone.

Let us return to Roth's native Newark. In the 1960's, a cheerful American-Armenian student and star athlete named Peter Balakian from suburban New Jersey experimented with radical politics and free sex, read voraciously, met Allen Ginsberg, wrote poetry, and became a scholar. The Movement led him to examine a family past cloaked in sorrow, almost shame, something of Roth's “perpetual fear.” He learned about the Genocide from his grandmother, who had survived it. He discovered that, as a new immigrant to the USA, she had tried to file suit against Turkey, more or less inventing along the way concepts of international law and human rights that she formulated in the unfamiliar English of her new home. But her life was shadowed, “shattered by the malicious indignities” of Turkey, and her grandson, a poet living in the rich, confident, high noon of American pleasure and success, dreamed:

Last night
my grandmother returned...

the babies in East Orange
have disappeared
maybe eaten by
the machinery
on this long road...
When I went to the garden
for squash
only stump was there...
West orange was burning
Montclair was burning
Bloomfield and Newark
were gone.

If I go to sleep
tonight, she said,
the ceiling will open
and bodies will fall
from clouds...

(Peter Balakian, The Black Dog of Fate, New York: Basic Books, 1997, pp. 184-186.)

Wherever the shadow of the Holocaust falls, there is another darkness unspoken: the genocide of the Armenians. Roth’s novel imagines a near-genocide of the Jews, now forgotten due to a freak accident. But the genocide of the Armenians actually is near-forgotten. The great fear of the Jewish community – that the world would forget – has been realized by the Armenians. Roth imagines gunfire and Jews hiding in Newark, while Balakian, perhaps unknown to him, sees Newark gone and South Jersey in flames, Armenians carrying the severed limbs of their children down the turnpike on a death march. In 2001, fiery death did come, in much the way Avedis Derounian had predicted, from an ideology that has fused jihad and Nazism, and you could see it from across the Hudson River. Yet we dream our separate dreams of terror alone: En makh'ov ke-makh'ovi. There is no pain like my pain.

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Lower image: Jolan Gross Bettelheim, Fascism IV (1944)

November 2004

This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
James Russell

Am I Religious?
Jay Michaelson

Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Joshua Axelrad

Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Lauren Wilson

Money-Back Guarantee
Samantha Stiers

Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Nigel Savage

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From previous issues:

The Virtue of Mediocrity
Michael Shurkin

Four Israeli Intelligence Directors
The Yediot Interview

David Goldstein