It is no secret that the Visegrád 4 are even more authoritarian, conservative, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic than their Central and Eastern European brethren could ever be. And that’s saying a lot, as everyone who’s ever had any real dealings with someone from the Eastern Bloc will quickly tell you. Of course, not all are like that, and the four pillars (the metaphorical Horsemen of the Apocalypse) are, unfortunately, alive and well in other parts of the world. But where more mentally developed nations will at least have the good grace to keep it to themselves, the V4 Brigade will shout it from the rooftops. Or put it on canvas.
My mother’s hometown is a picturesque gateway to the New World. Built in 1921 by pretty much calling everyone from the four corners of the land to settle there, it managed to take the best from everyone and rise from nothing (or at least the soil) as a quasi Art Deco town. Most, if not all, of its money came from the sea, most men also made their living as merchant marines. During communism it provided them and their families with many articles from the glorified (by the people) and demonized (by the government) West.
You’d think that with such qualities it would constitute the ideal melting pot, the one place where cultures can freely mix. There are four main cultures: the locals, the Germans, some Jews, and Nigerians. Most Nigerians are in fact Cuban, or Kenyan, or Ethiopian, but the local is not bothered by such detail. They all look alike anyway, you get the idea. And the few that do make their way there (usually for higher education purposes), are not represented in large enough numbers to take a stand. If you don’t like it, there’s the door, is the motto of the local, and he displays it almost every chance he gets.
Jews have lived in the country since at least the Middle Ages. You’d think with that set up they’d be seen as part of the the countryscape, and you’d be forgiven for seeing things that way, but the truth is, he is still referred to as “Jew.” Not to his face, of course, but behind his back. Which is more convenient anyway. For everyone involved.
The country has no qualms about hosting what are unarguably in the top three of horrific concentration camps. This is understandable. After all, there’s money to be made here (but the Jews are the ones stealing everything, when you hear the locals talk). Not so much from entrance fees (because that all goes to various Jewish organizations who, as the locals all know, didn’t lose as many of their tribe as they are want to claim, but inflating the numbers brings other gains, as the locals know only too well), but from offering accommodation, serving up food, serving beer, and no, this is not a hint as to the country. And why shouldn’t they capitalize on the Jewish tragedy (which, if you remember, wasn’t nearly as tragic as those Jews claim). After all, the locals suffered, too. They never knew what tomorrow would bring.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a competition. People suffer horribly in wars. There’s no question about that, psychological, physical trauma, it all counts. But to be responsible for trying to annihilate people, and then trying to turn things around, saying you’re the one who suffered more, trying to absolve yourself that way, it just doesn’t work. Never mind that national pride is so high, it would (almost) put the Grand Dragons of the KKK to shame. In the present political climate. Which is saying a lot. They’re also among the loudest voices proclaiming how unfair Brexit is, yet look at the rights they accord those European countries they don’t like, how they treat those people in everyday interactions. But yeah, how they are treated in Britain these days . . . no one, absolutely no one has it worse.
But the locals are now trying their hand at integration. Or at least they have now worked the Jew into interior decoration. A big portrait of a religious Jew is meant to be hung in a corner of the living room. Those “paintings” (framed in beautiful faux wood) are literally everywhere. At least they were in 2006, and I’m willing to bet not much has changed. The man is holding up a coin, examining it, as all Jews do. Next to him there are bags of money, as all Jews have. The “painting” was prominently displayed in a relative’s living room. Took me nearly a day to realize what it was, because this relative couldn’t possibly be a bigot. When I did figure it out, I asked her if it was what I thought it was.
“Yes,” she said beaming, “it’s an old Jew. It’s to bring money into the house.”
This was the same person who’d reminded me that concentration camp survivors had been through a lot, back when I was around twelve.
It wasn’t just on this relative’s wall. These things were everywhere. Even the next town over, which the Germans had laid claim to during the war and once (or several times) before. It’s still popular with Germans today. Much bigger than my mother’s hometown, and so popular a band even took the German name for it as its name. The Germans are still there, they even bought out a nearby hotel that had lots of character and turned it into a sterile monstrosity, fenced in the view and entrance to the sea and charged for entry. My cousin and I once had lunch there on Easter Monday when we were teens and starving. We were around fifteen. Back then you had to pay in dollars. Other than the assorted pimps and their prostitutes – and a waiter at each corner of our small table – there was no one else there. The old woman in the cloak room even cheated us out of some money when we paid.
Me, being me, I couldn’t keep quiet. When I saw a woman hawking these things at an indoor Christmas market (the irony only escaped her), I told her exactly what I thought of that “piece of art.” Or, to be more precise, I told her she should be ashamed of herself. A relative who was with me, and also at the home where the picture was displayed (they hadn’t helped me there either, instead they’d told me not to be so sensitive, how you can marry a Jew for his passport and then not acknowledge anti-Semitism is completely beyond me), stood up for the seller, chewing me out for not being respectful. To put this in context, the seller was younger than myself, but older than 29.
The seller had a very good argument. The old classic of, “I have Jewish friends. They don’t mind.”
I tried to explain it to her, but she wasn’t about to lose face or trouble herself by thinking it through. Plus, my relative was backing her all the way. We argued a lot about that for a long time. Her stance was that since we were guests at our other relative’s house, it was impolite to say anything, and besides – the old classic again – I was overreacting, being way too sensitive all over again. I reminded her of the time she had visited me, not exactly adapting to my rules (which were practically non-existent, other than don’t fight, and let people do their own stuff i.e. when they have to work), not making herself at home, but making it her house. We’d been invited to a dinner, and the subject of Princess Diana came up. Our host was a huge royalist. My relative liked the glitz and the glamor, the idea of power, around the Royal House, but was still critical of them. The subject somehow turned to Diana’s death.
Relative: Clearly, it was the Royal House that had her killed. The Queen Mum had her hands in it. Because she was about to marry a Muslim.
Host (saying one of the most beautiful phrases I’ve heard in a long time): Oh, I can’t believe that. They have a God they must answer to as well.
Me: That is very true. And I don’t want to believe they killed her either, but I can totally understand why people would think that.
My relative was less impressed when I reminded her, resorting to the other classic, “that’s how you see it.”
It made me realize that while blood most certainly is thicker than water, to her I would never be blood. Because I’m too mixed, I’m not European but Eurasian. Which I am and will always be proud of.
Disclaimer. I have a very dark, morbid sense of humor. Sometimes that gets misunderstood. I am also good at voicing other people’s opinions as though they were my own. The fact that I am able to do this from a bigoted perspective, merely means I’ve been around these people way too much. Unfortunately I’ve managed to render their voice, their mannerisms, their trains of thought. But I wanted to put them down in writing for others to see. The anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and bigoted speech is not in any way shape or form my own, but merely the rendering of that of the people I have encountered throughout my life.