It was early morning, and bunches of school kids stood by their mailboxes in the cool autumn air, waiting for the school bus. Just one bus plied these arrow-straight country roads, picking up students at one- and two-mile intervals—students not only from all different grade levels but indeed from different schools, both public and parochial. In one tiny farm village, little more than a general store, tavern, church, and fifteen houses, the bus door opened to admit a half-dozen children. Inside, kids chattered and greeted each other, finding their usual places to sit. It was a Norman Rockwell scene in the high season of the Norman Rockwell era, 1944, though the landscape outside was not Rockwell’s New England but Wisconsin, more practical and plain than picturesque.
When the bus neared the edge of the small city that was its destination, it stopped in front of an automobile junkyard with a tiny lunchroom in front. A boy aged sixteen or so stepped aboard. He had dark curly hair—and that’s all I can remember about him, since his back was always turned toward the rest of us. He refrained from seeking a seat, and perched instead on the first step, just below the driver, who closed the door, shifted gears, and moved the bus forward routinely. The roaring sound of the engine couldn’t cover the shouts of derision that pelted the dark-haired boy. The imprecations came from the back bench, in the rear of the bus, the seat occupied by the oldest boys. Their leader, a tall and muscular youth, sat surrounded by his admirers.
“Hey Jew boy!” they shouted. “Hey, lets go fly a kike!”
I sat safely in the middle of that bus—safely and silently. A great gulf existed between a boy in the sixth grade and high-school juniors and seniors, and it never occurred to me to interfere, or even simply to offer the dark-haired boy a seat next to mine. But it made me uncomfortable, this ritual of contempt that played out morning after morning—so much so that it has remained burned into my memory for over sixty years.
Every evening after school in that decisive year of war, I scanned the Chicago Tribune, where front-page maps illustrated the progress of the Allied troops in Europe. The black wavy lines inched forward daily, with arrows pointing toward Germany. It was the beginning of the end of a war being fought by American men who would eventually be dubbed the “Greatest Generation.” The totalitarian evils these men were fighting included a virulent anti-Semitism, a race hatred epitomized by the “Final Solution” then being implemented by Hitler and his henchmen. And yet here on the home front, a Jew was being verbally assaulted, day after day, by the younger brothers of those GIs.
It may seem a stretch to compare the mean heckling in a Wisconsin bus with the genocidal hatred of the Holocaust. But I see similarities. After the war Americans lived with the comfortable myth that anti-Semitism stopped at the borders of Hitler’s Germany, or at least at Europe’s Atlantic shore. Didn’t we fight, after all, to wipe out Hitler and his anti-Semitic insanity? And yet, during the war, in my section of rural Wisconsin, as elsewhere, anti-Jewish sentiments were rampant. Tourists who came north from Chicago to our rural lakes during the summer months were scorned as “city-slicker Jews.” As late as my college years—ten years after the end of World War II, and long after all the death-camp photographs had appeared in our newspapers—signs above the doors of some local summer resorts still warned “Gentiles Only.” The collective memory loss Americans have experienced with respect to such commonplace bigotry is a form of denial. And Catholics were and are a part of this. Perhaps even a large part. The high-school boy who led the verbal assault was the star center on the St. Mary’s High School basketball team.
Thinking back on that over the decades, I have often wondered how students like us could be of two minds—how we could hold two tenets that are in direct opposition and act on both of them. After all, all of us in Catholic schools were taught to love our neighbor as ourselves. All of us were taught that Christ was a Jew. All of us believed that the war against Hitler was just, and we knew that one reason the war was being fought was the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It is true that we didn’t realize the full extent of the Holocaust until the war was drawing to a close and we saw the pictures of the liberated camps. But even then we might not have made the connection. I remember looking at those pictures in the newspaper with horror—but I didn’t relate them to the victim on the school bus the next morning.
I do know that the Catholic boy who led the attack, ostracizing the Jewish boy with such casual contempt, was himself an outsider. His father had died, and his mother, rumored to be incapable of controlling him, had sent him to live with her brother, a very strict priest who served as pastor of the small Catholic parish in that tiny village the school bus passed through. I can best describe this priest’s approach to life by describing his approach to death. My Uncle Frank, a member of his congregation, keeled over with a heart attack and died one Tuesday night during the Our Lady of Perpetual Help devotion. There were no doctors around, and the priest grasped the moment. He had Frank stretched out in a pew, gave him the last rites, and then mounted the pulpit to preach an impassioned sermon on how every moment of life must be a preparation for death. If you can imagine a rebellious and recently fatherless teenager living with such a man, in an austere parsonage in a tiny farm village with no siblings, no friends, and no car, you might begin to understand the rage that exploded during the few hours he was free. And a Jew was a natural target in that time and place.
My own attitude toward Jews at this time in my life, and that of my family’s, was formed by ignorance and a passive and unthinking acceptance of customary prejudices. At the age of eleven, I’d listened to the Gospels read aloud during Passion Week. They painted an evil portrait of the Jews who helped bring about Christ’s torture and death. Did I make a connection between these biblical Jews and the Jewish boy on the bus or the one Jewish family who lived in town? I don’t think so. The Jews in the New Testament lived in a world more mythical than real. My father did listen to the weekly radio show broadcast by the notorious Fr. Coughlin, who preached about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy led by FDR—a president my father detested. But I don’t remember any mention of Jews in my father’s angry denunciations of Roosevelt. He and my mother did not use the slurs I heard on the bus. The only epithet my parents used—to describe the patriarch of the one Jewish family established in our small city—was “sheeny.” He was a scrap-metal collector, a tiny man who sat high in the cab of his truck when he visited our farm, never leaving his seat while my father and I threw scrap metal into the back. At an early age, I thought this word simply meant “junkman,” not realizing it was a term of contempt for a Jew. “The sheeny’s coming,” my father would say to me, with no apparent malice. His personal dealings with Mr. Lipton were reserved and businesslike. It was an era of casual ethnic slurs, when one simply spoke that way and didn’t think twice.
The boy on the bus was the closest I came to a Jewish person until I joined the U.S. Army in 1955. It was an army of draftees, and wildly democratic: Catholics and Protestants, Princeton graduates, African Americans from Detroit and farm boys all bunked together and endured as one the misery and humiliation of basic training. At Fort Riley, where our bunks were assigned alphabetically, I found myself between Albert Styx and Marvin Scheaffer. Both were Jews from New York City, and had nothing else in common. Albert was friendly and funny, his humorous company providing relief from the fatigue and the fear I woke up with every day, wondering how I could ever actually bayonet another human being. More urgently, I wondered why anyone would want to bayonet me. Albert and I were brothers in our despair, and used each other for support. He was a Reformed Jew—which I knew only because Marvin railed against him for not always attending services on Friday evening. Marvin was Orthodox. He had a serious nature, and while he was not unfriendly, when we spoke it was usually some practical exchange of information. His disdain for Albert, and Albert’s for him, was always on the surface. I became a Christian buffer zone between two Jewish enclaves with bullet words flying over my head. So much for Fr. Coughlin’s worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
Seven decades later, I look back and try to understand the nature of the spite directed at that dark-haired boy on my school bus. To some extent, anti-Semitism, like all racial, ethnic, or religious bias, merely reflects the human dislike for the different, the adolescent desire to associate with only those who are like us and to despise all others. Even Marvin and Al had contempt for each others’ versions of their religion. But I think there is another, more telling factor in play—namely, our tendency to revile in others what we fear and despise in ourselves.
The most common accusation against Jews—and what made them the subject of Gentile jokes—was their alleged stinginess and greed. Yet I have never known anyone more thrifty, to use the polite word, than the Midwestern German-American families I grew up among during and after the Great Depression. My maiden Aunt Kate and bachelor Uncle Carl, brother and sister, lived in the same house and would sit in the dark on winter evenings rather than burn even one light bulb. At our house, meanwhile, no food was ever wasted; the very toughest gristle and fat, that we absolutely could not consume, went to feed the cats and dog—no Alpo for them. On our farm, no single stalk of wild asparagus or wild berry was left unpicked. Wormy apples that dropped from the trees went to the cider mill, their wriggling guests adding protein to the juice. We saved string and rusty nails and tin foil and anything else that could conceivably be of use someday. If Midwestern Christians reviled Jews for their miserliness, it was because we loathed ourselves for precisely that. The Jewish author and Holocaust survivor Hans Keilson describes a German character in his novel The Death of the Adversary as someone who “needed the Jews to project onto them what he dislikes in himself.” Similarly, the Catholic boy on the bus, isolated and lonely, was prone to victimize a similarly isolated and lonely Jewish boy.
After my discharge from the army, like many other young people from the Midwest, I sought employment in New York City. I don’t remember who warned me about working in the city, but I took the warning to mean: Be careful, New York is full of Jews! Shortly after being employed, I met a colleague named Pierre, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had grown up in France. One day, in a conversation with several colleagues around the water cooler, he was complaining about his lot. “I have a terrible disadvantage as a Frenchman,” he said to us. “Americans spend their childhood with parents steeped in business. It’s second nature to you.” I didn’t respond, but immediately I thought about how I had spent my youth, milking cows and hoeing thistles in a cornfield. That hadn’t taught me a lot about the ins and outs of corporate politics or dealing with customers. Nor had graduating from college with a major in English literature. Indeed, I couldn’t have been more naive about business, growing up as a farm boy who read Life magazine and dreamed about faraway cities. So who was this “you” the Frenchman envied? Where was this advantage I supposedly possessed?
Despite my rural upbringing, somehow I managed to succeed in my life in the big city—well enough at any rate to buy a home, support my family, and send my children to college. Over the course of a career in the New York publishing and printing industry, I dealt with many Jewish colleagues and counterparts. They invited me to their homes and fed me; they showed me pictures of their children. We agreed and disagreed about politics and baseball; we presented to one another the usual balance of virtues and vices. We were friends, in the normal human way.
Why did I, a Midwesterner raised as a Roman Catholic, feel so comfortable with my Jewish colleagues? Perhaps it was my stint in the draftee U.S. Army—an institution that has done more to bring mutual understanding to our democracy than any other in our history. Perhaps it was, in part, a Catholic’s understanding of the harm religious prejudice can do. Yet while some Catholics even today may complain of anti-Catholicism, and certain movies, plays, and television dramas continue to portray nuns and priests as ludicrous buffoons or narrow-minded autocrats, the truth is that Roman Catholics are now part of the establishment. We are not in any danger of being persecuted or discriminated against in this country—and have not been for generations. Catholics have rarely felt the sting of hate-filled words like those aimed at the curly-haired boy in the front of the bus—mere hours before we parochial students walked to the Communion rail to have a cross of ashes applied to our foreheads.
I wonder sometimes if my adult attitudes were formed by a dawning awareness, deeper than I could possibly have understood at the time, of the implications of that episode in the school bus and its connection to dreadful events transpiring at that very moment on the world stage. Perhaps at some level I understood that the fact that I could empathetically place myself on the step in the front of the bus, yet couldn’t or didn’t sympathize enough to take a stand, placed me in the company of countless Germans who stood by and let atrocity happen—sitting in the middle of the bus, as it were, wary of their fearsome rulers, but feeling fortunate not to be Jewish.