Paying Homage to Hope in the Era of Trump

Hirsch Dorbian (right) with a fellow Marine in Camp Lejeune, NC, c. 1951-52.

Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president, I’ve thought a great deal of what my dear and much-missed father would have thought about the orange bloviator-demagogue becoming leader of the free world. A staunch liberal until the last few years of his life, when he started veering toward the right due to his unconditional support of Israel (a sensitive and polarizing topic for many left-leaning American Jews), Dad probably would have initially agreed with Trump about illegal immigrants.

Having waited four years in a displaced persons camp in Germany in the late 1940s before he and his surviving family from Hitler’s Europe could legally emigrate to the US, Dad didn’t think it was fair that illegal immigrants take away jobs from tax-paying citizens — even if they get paid bargain-basement wages. His objection was motivated by justice, never bigotry.

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As a Holocaust survivor, when he and others like him first came to this country, they still had to wade through a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape while attending Americanization program at local schools designed to help them pass citizenship tests and better assimilate into their new world. Unlike too many people today — by which I mean both legal and illegal residents — he and his family didn’t take their presence in their newly adopted society for granted. They knew they were not only lucky to be in this country, a benchmark for democracy, but lucky to be alive, considering what they had been through.

However, I’m also sure that whatever affinity Dad might have had for Trump early on would have dissipated immediately after taking heed of the mogul’s bigoted campaign rhetoric and overt lack of compassion toward people. A former Marine, Dad was drafted in the early 1950s during the Korean War when he wasn’t even yet a citizen, and he admired John McCain; he even voted for him in 2008 — the last presidential election he would participate in before his death in 2010. I have no doubt he would not have liked Trump’s thoughtless and stupid remark that McCain wasn’t a hero during the Vietnam War because he was a POW.

As someone who suffered firsthand under Nazism, he would also have seen the eerie similarities between Trump’s rallies and the Nazi rallies right away. On Nov. 9, 2016, he would have pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton as an expression of protest against Trump, whose ascendancy would have appalled, astonished and disappointed him.

And yet, if my Dad were alive, as disgusted and horrified he would be at Trump’s election, he would still cling to a fraying filament of hope, because that’s what he was like. Even in the face of adversity, the kind that very few of us (thank god) will ever be privy to, Dad had hope. He had no other choice. Either that or submit willingly to genocide.

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That was one of several key reasons why I wrote An Epiphany in Lilacs, a young adult coming-of-age novel set in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II. Newly published by Mazo Publishers, the book is loosely inspired by my father’s experiences. The main character, Daniel, is a 14-year-old Latvian Jew who is being treated in a field hospital in the British zone of partitioned Germany. A survivor of various concentration camps, Daniel fights to recover from starvation and disease. Through his love of nature, and prewar memories, he struggles to find comfort. But even amid the nightmares that haunt him at night, robbing him of sleep, coupled with his uncertainty regarding the whereabouts of his immediate family, Daniel has hope — just like my father always had. And I think it’s this hope that can be an uplifting allegory to us all during this admittedly scary period that is making many of us non-Trump supporters terrified at what the future might bring.

Here (if you’ll allow me a little self-promotion!) is a brief excerpt from the book to give you an idea of what a powerful tonic hope can be:

The British had done a yeoman job of cleaning up the damage caused by the bombings; it was a miracle most of the buildings had survived. However, therein lied the paradox: if you were on a train or in a car rushing by Neustadt and you cast a fleeting glimpse at the monolithically bleak facade housing the converted barracks, you would swear it was a prison. On the outside, the buildings were identical and utilitarian in form. Yet, if you stopped for a moment and stepped inside to snag a closer view of what remained of this erstwhile naval base, you would see a thin layer of hope clouding the vision of so many dislocated souls. The DPs were lost, of course, suspended between the horrors of a recent past and the uncertainties of an unknown future, but they were also astonished they survived and were not extinct.

And because of that, every day seemed like an epiphany; breathing was an epiphany, nature was an epiphany…

Maybe Daniel was the only one left from his immediate family, he thought as he sauntered on the premises, but he was here, alive and above ground, not fertilizer somewhere, not incinerated in an oven or riddled with bullets, his corpse used as a lampshade for a pampered Nazi wife. He made it, against insane, inexorable odds, when so many people, far worthier than him had not. It never made any sense to Daniel. Clearly, in this vein, survival was certainly not a metrics of personal value, just a matter of luck.

There’s a very famous quote attributed to the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana (1863-1952): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s often invoked by pundits when discussing the Holocaust. As we tread this ominous future, it’s one that bears repeating again and again and again.

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An Epiphany in Lilacs: In the Aftermath of the Camps is available on Amazon (in both paperback and Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (paperback).