April 1, 2016

We Don’t Mean You (Manchester Guardian 30/12/63)

Hungarian Jews being selected by Nazis to be sent to the gas chamber at Auschwitz concentration camp

Years ago, when the war began, I spent my afternoons with a group of Englishwomen who, day after day, said Hitler was right…Gassing was the best thing for them…We ought to do the same with them here. And when I said, “How can you talk like that in front of me when you know I’m Jewish!” they opened their eyes wide in astonishment, and with startled sincerity said, “But Leila, we don’t mean you!”

A friend was standing the other night near a group of busmen in South London. Gesturing towards the long weary bus queue, they were saying: “Black bastards…Dirty niggers…Why don’t they send the pack of them home!” And among the group of busmen was one West Indian.

They don’t mean you, conductor from Jamaica. They will humiliate, deport, torture, kill; or they will applaud or condone it; but they are kind people and they don’t mean you. You are the exception, because you are their friend. And all around are other groups of people, also killing, applauding, and condoning, and with different friends of whom they make an exception. So in the end the killers can preserve their kindness while exterminating themselves. But don’t be ill bred; don’t betray your un-Englishness by taking it personally.

“We don’t mean you,” they said. In one sense, they did mean me. In one sense they meant me very much, because they could kill me in what they thought would be an acceptable way, and this left them free to like me. It was a very happy arrangement for them, both satisfying and safe.

But in a deeper sense it was true that they didn’t mean me. Not the people far away whom they didn’t know, not the people near by who were their friends, these were not the people.

Who was it then, so close to them, so inextricably interwoven with them, that hate was too dangerous to voice directly?

No, they never mean us. They mean the furious father, the betraying mother, the sarcastic schoolteacher, the cold employer, the sniggering girl…they mean the London traffic, the tyrannical bus schedules, the time–clock…they mean the loneliness in the crowds, the emptiness in the clamour, the sterile mothball smell in the starched bed. Their nerves are still raw from the wild panic of the school-bell, the factory blast; their ear still rings from the unexpected blow.

Cringing from the void in the large central-heated house and carefully tended garden, all silent and empty of children, or cringing from the pressure in the tiny room with three demanding children under five and the only lavatory outside, they feel a secret satisfaction when a union of loved children and loved parents, whom they suspect of tranquility, is torn apart.

Still petrified by the crash on the door of the drunken lodger, the man for the rent, the schoolboard officer, they feel a secret satisfaction in the knock of the Gestapo.

Still sick in the stomach at their exile to infant school, to boarding school, to a dark cupboard, to their bedroom, to the hospital, to the cold stone of a front door step, how pleasant it is for them to have the power of deportation and to feel it, to relish it.

And those of us who try to form bonds out of love, not hate, are we perhaps sometimes like the married couples who adopt a child to plaster over their own infirmity? Oh, I am all for groups founded on brotherhood; I have joined so many of them; yet how easily the stewards become oppressors, the brothers bastards, and with what noble altruism a comrade can be tossed to the wolves for “the people’s” sake. What hidden, untended wounds are festering under the hate; and if they fester under the love too, what can we build that is healthy?

West Indian on the South London pavement, no Englishman will accept you till he accepts himself. A people so torn by wounds that must never be admitted would not want you to be whole and happy. Who can love his neighbour until he loves himself?

©Leila Berg
published in The Manchester Guardian 30/12/63