Targeted for humiliation, prohibited from observing her religion in freedom, Annika Hernroth-Rothstein tried to draw attention to the plight of Sweden’s small Orthodox Jewish community—and that’s when the trouble really began.
A few months after I had entered high school, the boys with the boots showed up. I called them that because they had paired their historically accurate Hitler Jugend uniforms with shiny 10-hole Dr. Martens, white laces dramatically contrasting their perfect oxblood shade.
I could always hear them approaching, the boys with the boots. The sound of rubber soles against linoleum would cut through the noises of my high school hallway and as soon as I turned around, there they were.
My family had settled in that sleepy coastal town some 70 years earlier, leaving the big city for a better place to raise a family. The war came, and what happened after that I only know through scattered pictures and hushed-down questions. I was told life had become difficult, so they adapted, as the children of their children would also be taught to do.
A year ago, to the day, I went to a foreign policy conference in Washington, DC, to attend a lecture by a State Department official who specializes in countering anti-Semitism. I had come there to ask for help, and when I asked this man whose job is to monitor and combat this scourge of hate around the world what the administration was planning to do about the European crisis, his response to me was that this is not 1939 and while the situation may be dire, the sky is not falling.
As we went around the room and I stated my name he smiled and acknowledged me as the Swedish girl who applied for asylum in my own country. Funny, he said. You don’t look like any refugee I’ve ever seen. The crowd erupted in laughter, and I sat silent, waiting to be clued in on the joke. I had come to tell my story, but the man in front of me did not really listen, and as I would later learn, neither did the world.
|Photo: Annika Hernroth-Rothstein|
Each time I was proven wrong.
The boys with the boots would talk to me sometimes. Without a hint of aggression they would tell me that my relatives had become soap in camps, not too far away from where we stood, and that I should follow suit. There was no physical violence, not even once. Instead they would sit next to me in the cafeteria, wait for me at the top of the stairs, or stand to attention as I passed by them. I didn’t know why they despised me, but I knew that it mattered. It mattered to them, and so, it had to matter to me.
When I was 15 years old I shaved my head. It was a last resort, a final measure, after spending years changing for and adapting to a world that seemed set on viewing me as a stranger. I had tried so hard. Taming the wild, dark curls, bleaching and straightening to resemble the shiny blonde girls. It didn’t help; neither did hiding in bathrooms and libraries to escape the silent warfare that recess had come to be. It was as if the more I altered myself to be like them, the more they despised me for even trying.
The whole process took over two hours, and when I finally met my own gaze in the bathroom mirror I could see that the venture had been in vain. All the traits I had grown to despise—the big nose, the wide mouth, and the bushy black eyebrows—were all the more visible without the aid of an untamed hair. That was the night I realized there was nothing I could do to change what made me deserve all this hatred. It was also the first and last time I ever saw my mother cry.
In the past two years, Europe has exploded, from gruesome murders in Belgium and France to riots, torched synagogues and defaced Holocaust memorial sites, along with a dramatic spike in hate crimes all over the continent. Jews are being singled out and persecuted, once again, and most recently Paris and Copenhagen were added to the list of cities synonymous with terror, as more Jewish blood was spilled before the eyes of the world.
Some would say this summer changed everything, but the situation for European Jewry was dire well before Operation Protective Edge created open season on us and the link to Israel came into question for Jews across the continent. There is nothing new about the anti-Semitism we see now, but the dormant hatred seems to have reached critical mass, using anti-Zionism as a handy and creative outlet. I experienced this shift firsthand this past summer as I traveled from Sweden to Israel during the war. I had had the audacity to display the Israeli flag on my luggage, and that gave someone handling my bag enough reason to rip off the flag, stab the bag and its contents several times, and then pour soda onto the precious siddur that goes with me everywhere. No matter what the airline officials tried to tell me, this was no accident, nor was it political commentary. It was terrorism, having been given the excuse to move above ground, into broad daylight, without any pushback or consequence.
My mother sat me down and told me that once, when she was just a little girl, she had gone driving with her father. Suddenly she had asked him what it meant that they were Jewish, and why all the children at school were telling her that she was. Her father had slapped her across the face and yelled, “Don’t ever say that word again! If anyone asks, we are Walloons. That’s what you tell them. Walloons.” They rode back to the house in silence, and my mother did not broach the subject again.
|Photo: Andreas Blixt|
The terror that haunts the Jews of Europe is not a local one, but part of the global war that is now killing the Christians of Iraq, Yemen, and Syria and displacing, raping, and torturing minorities all over the world. When concessions are made toward Iran, when the Muslim Brotherhood is treated as a reliable partner, when moral relativism is used in dealing with Hamas, gas is poured on the fire that is scorching the earth beneath our feet. The walls have come down, as President Obama so eloquently put it in his 2008 speech in Berlin. For better and for worse, everything is connected and the web woven in the hills of Afghanistan traps Jews in a kosher supermarket, thousands of miles away.
A few weeks ago my son didn’t come home from school at four o’clock, as he always does. I tried his phone, with no answer. I would have tried his friends, but he’s been keeping to himself. The hours passed and just as I was about to call the police, he walks in, breaking down in tears before his bag even hits the floor. He tells me he had joined a few boys to play soccer after school, and everything had gone well until there was a dispute over the rules, and then the group had turned on him. The leader, a classmate of my son, had said, “This is why I don’t play with the cheating Jews.” My son had looked to the rest of them to protest, to stand by him in any way, but instead they had left him to make it back home alone.
Hearing my son speak I felt anger, yes, but also a deep sense of resignation. My great-grandparents came to this country as the Other, almost 200 years ago, and it seems as if not much has changed. The sound of rubber soles against linoleum echoes through each generation, and now they had come for my child.
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