Head Out of the Sand (Story by Risa Peris)

The professor was tall with a paunch that looked as if he had stuffed stolen items from a department store under his requisite sweaters and collared shirts. His legs were long, thin and he walked quickly with a jaunt. For some reason, I thought his legs were spaghetti and he made me mildly hungry for a bowl of Bolognese at L’Antica in Greenwich Village. The professor was the son of Holocaust survivors from Germany and Poland and nearly all his extended family had been exterminated. This was his story and he told his story often. He consulted and gave lectures at the Holocaust Museum. 


I was his student – half white and half Hispanic – and I was a history student of WWII. I took the professor’s class on collective memory, numbness, and the Holocaust. It was halfway through the semester that I got a letter from Texas. It was stamped Clint, Texas. It was from a law firm. My hands shook opening it. Was I being sued? I was just a graduate student. 


The letter explained that the attorney represented my aunt and cousins who had fled Honduras and was not being detained in Clint, Texas. My cousins were eight, ten, and twelve. Would I make a case for them? Would I host them? I imagined four people in my studio apartment in New York City. I had never met my aunt or my cousins. 


I called my mother. “No, it wouldn’t be fair to you to get involved in this. Let’s visit them though, if we can, and see what help we can offer.”


The facility blended with the dirt around it. When we walked in with the lawyer there was a stench. 


“The children and women haven’t bathed in weeks. One toilet is broken. There is no privacy. They have no soap. Very little water. A substandard diet. I don’t even think the women or children are even getting 1000 calories per day. That’s not sustainable for health. Even the Nazis discovered that.” The lawyer was dressed in a pants suit. She was Hispanic and spoke matter-of-factly. I walked down the hall and saw men, through a square window packed standing room only. There was not enough room for them to sit or lay down. I began to cry and I hadn’t even reached the children yet. Mother dealt with the attorney and was able to visit my aunt who reeked of filth and was crying she hadn’t seen her children in a month. 


“Mom, I’m going back to New York.” I wasn’t brave enough for this cruelty. 


In class, the professor said there is only one Holocaust and nothing can be compared to it. 


I raised my hand. “I just left a concentration camp on our border.”


The professor bristled. “Not a concentration camp.”


I became very angry. “The analogy is appropriate. By denying analogies and comparisons to WWII you are providing cover for modern cruelties and many, many other cruelties throughout history. What I saw was cruel and inhumane.” I slammed by book shut and walked out of the class. I was shaking. It was a protest. A feeble one. I was now, despite my fear and disgust, committed to fight. Never again? Oh, professor. It happens again and again. Get your intellectual head out of the sand.