I am an active Democrat because of my mother’s history. My 96-year-old mother was born and raised in Alsace, France. At 19, she was interred in a concentration camp as a political prisoner. She was not Jewish, a Romani, a communist, disabled, or gay. She was not someone whom the Reich would ordinarily have targeted. She chose to become part of the French Resistance because she believed it was her duty to resist. She paid the price for resisting. It is her brave story that inspired me to be an active member of the Democratic Party.
My mother was the eldest of three girls in a very wealthy family. Her father was a Master Butcher. He and my grandmother retired at age 35. My mom and her sisters rarely carried currency; townspeople simply put anything they wanted to buy on their father’s account. In the lead up to the war, one of my grandfather’s associates asked him to supply canned meats to the French Army, so he converted the mill on his estate to a meat packing plant. When the German army was days from overtaking their area, they dumped all the meats into the river, cleaned all equipment, released their staff, and shut down the factory completely. When Nazi officers arrived two days later, there was nothing to confiscate. They thoroughly searched the factory, home, and out buildings, but found no meat or evidence that the factory was in operation. They were incredulous, but could not take what was not there. My grandparents could have supplied the Reich and made a handsome profit; they refused to do so. Shortly thereafter, they were removed from their country estate and relocated to a small house in town. They never recovered their home.
Once in town, my grandmother and my mother began to do small things to aid the Resistance. They did not share details with one another, but each evening at dinner, the family rehearsed what to say if apprehended: “At dinner, we don’t talk much.” They were told, “No matter what anyone says, if you talk, they will kill us all.” On my mom’s nineteenth birthday, she and her family were at the train station, having just returned from her birthday celebration. They saw a Gestapo officer and shuddered, wondering for whom he had come. He came up to my mother and told her to get into his car. Of course, she could not refuse and got in. He questioned her about a suitcase she had picked up at the station two days earlier. She said someone had just asked her to get it, and to be polite, she did. She said she just left it on a street corner. She said she knew nothing, as no one ever told her anything because they said she was a blabbermouth. The officer did not believe her and put out his cigarette on her leg. When she still offered no details, he said perhaps some time in jail would help her memory, so off to jail they went. Recall that she was 19.
After interrogation and 6 weeks in jail, she was transferred to Schmireck concentration camp. It was adjacent to the infamous Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp. These camps, located on French soil were for political prisoners, medical experimentation, and forced labor. Schirmeck used Natzweiler’s crematorium to dispose of its dead. My mother was Prisoner 36-14. Unbeknownst to my mom, her mother was there as well. Political prisoners were not allowed any communication with the outside; they were simply whisked off and interred. They were not told where they were going. The idea was to instill terror in both the interred and their families. People simply disappeared into the night and fog. The Nazis hoped that time in camp would inspire my mother to cooperate. In retrospect, my mom thinks they were trying to use her as leverage to get to her mother.
In Schirmeck, after 6 more weeks of near starvation, freezing temperatures, and labor scrubbing sheets soiled with blood from prisoner interrogations, my mother was freed. She was simply told to go and was put outside of the gates. To secure her release, her father had bribed a Nazi officer affiliated with the camp with gold coins. My grandmother was interred on three separate occasions and freed each time with the same bribes of gold coins. After the second time, my grandfather had no more assets, so his longtime friend and associate raised the money for the bribe. Neither my mother nor her mom stopped resisting. My mom is sure her mom would have been imprisoned again, had France not been liberated.
My mother was a war bride. Post-war, she emigrated to Vienna, where my dad was stationed with the US Army. My mom saw the fairness and decency with which my dad and his fellow Americans treated the Austrians, even as occupying forces. After 5 years, they moved to America. She eventually became an American citizen, in part so that she could vote. She registered as a Republican, because after all, France is La Republique Francaise. But after her first election, she realized her misunderstanding and became a Democrat.
I always knew that my mom was part of the Resistance. Watching Hogan’s Heroes, she’d say, “Oh they’d have shot him for that!” As a small child, I do not remember my parents speaking about politics very much. They spoke about World War II and their experiences in Europe before, during, and after the war. They used that experience to teach my brother and me that all people are the same regardless of religion, ethnicity, or race. As a 1st generation American, my dad knew America was a land of opportunity, but sometimes Americans needed to be reminded that we are all the same. He laughed that, as a kid, he was teased because his mom fed them that weird pie with tomatoes, now known as pizza.
My parents saw promise in America. They thought that the battle for liberty, equality, and fraternity had been won in World War II, but they also knew that democracy only thrives when citizens vote. My parents taught us that it was our duty as American citizens to vote. In high school, I was distrustful of both parties, but liked Nixon. I registered as an independent, but I soon realized that precluded me from voting in Pennsylvania primaries. Thus, I looked at the DNC and RNC. It was clear that the Democratic Party championed civil rights, voting rights, and was more inclusive, so I registered as a Democrat. After college and the “Reagan Revolution”, I became more politically aware. I knocked on doors for some Democratic candidates, but was not active beyond that.
When Donald Trump won the support of the GOP and became their presidential candidate, I was shocked. My mother was terrified. She had seen Fascists before and feared for our country. When Trump mocked a disabled reporter, she reminded me that Hitler killed “mental defectives”. When he spoke of grabbing women, she remembered that the Nazis belittled women and thought they were only vessels for the Reich. When she heard Trump supporters at his rallies refer to the luegenpresse, she began to panic. The word had been used by the Nazis, it means “lying press”. The Muslim ban reminded her of the roundup of Jews and Romani. The ban terrified her, causing her to have nightmares in which she and I were sent to camp. I promised my mother that I will do as much as I can to preserve our democracy.
I am an active Democrat to honor my mom and her mom. When Americans liberated their town, they saw saviors. America fought the war to eliminate barriers between religions, cultures, and classes. The progressive ideals of the Marshall Plan turned former advisories into strong allies. America embraced democratic principles and built thriving democracies. America was liberty, equality, and fraternity incarnate. The Democratic Party stands for those progressive ideals. My mother, my grandmother, and my father fought for those ideals. America is the beacon of hope to her citizens and the world. We cannot let recent events change that. I promised my mom that I’d help her keep America’s promise, that’s why I am an active, proud Democrat.
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