The soft-spoken, diminutive 81-year-old Harriet was visibly nervous. She was about to sit down in front of a cluster of 2-dozen friends and neighbors in a tiny downtown bookstore who had gathered to listen to her read stories of her youth growing up in Nazi Germany. The designated soft chair facing the cozy audience did not appear to meet the moment. “Would you like this stiff-backed wooden chair instead,” asked her friend.
“Yes, I think that would work better,” Harriet gently replied with a small and gracious smile.
In her readings, Harriet intertwined personal, family experiences, with the larger forces of Nazi history. She talked about President Hindenburg’s fateful decision to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor, even though he only got 37% of the vote. When Hindenburg died a few months later, she demonstrated with painful detail how ruthless and effective Hitler and the Nazis were in consolidating power. A key technique in that consolidation was the capacity to instill fear in the populace for any effort to oppose the Nazis. A key technique to instill fear was the breakdown in trust between neighbors.
Harriet told of her father discovering and then confronting a neighbor who was peering into their living room window on a cold winter’s evening. The neighbor explained, with a self-satisfied justification, that she was listening only to make sure the family radio was not tuned to the BBC. The consequence for Harriet’s family of such a revelation could be severe. Imprisonment and even death.
In any political era, there is a seductive tendency to equate the latest autocratic outrage with an unavoidable slide into Nazi atrocities. First the Nazis did this, then they did that, and look at what our current ruler is doing? Same darn thing. And yet… and yet… this time in America feels different. Trump’s lawbreaking feels different. Trump’s apparent direct appreciation for Goebbels and Hitler feels different. Trump’s acolytes seem so fawning, and their yearning for a great leader so reminiscent of Hitler, that all the things that make the current and ‘30s eras so different appear to fade away. Fears take over. Maybe we could slide into fascism? Maybe the lies and cult of leadership risk civilization itself?
Harriet’s stories triggered a lifetime reflection of my family’s interactions with neighbors. Both my family of origin as well as the various incarnations of what came to be my home and family.
I was born in “The Projects;” a low- to moderate-income public housing complex in New York’s Arverne-Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. My parents were just starting their careers and with three little kids, Dad’s single income source and Mom’s full-time home and child-raising duties qualified us for rent support. Our neighbor, the Dubrows’ dad, worked two jobs which provided his family with sufficient income to exclude them from The Projects. But we didn’t “rat” on him and his family about that second job. Or which radio station they listened to! We were compassionate neighbors.
Soon after I was born, Dad got a fancy job in Seattle, Washington and off we went. For about 18 months we lived in an apartment complex on Mercer Island while our typical suburban tract home was being constructed in Lake Hills. We moved there when I was two and lived there for the rest of my childhood.
Lake Hills was a massive post-war residential and commercial development, filled with more than 13 thousand people in the eastern side of Bellevue. Our block had 16 homes – eight on each side of the street – and just about everyone’s home had kids close to my age. I came to know the names of just about everyone on the block as did my parents and sisters. The world of neighbors on our block felt safe. Kids would play on the street, then drop in on various homes, where a kid’s mom might have warm chocolate chip cookies and milk ready to serve.
When I was about 10, new neighbors moved in who proved to be great community organizers. They successfully lobbied the city to shut off our street to cars for a day, and we had a block party.
But not all neighbors were as friendly as others. In some homes I felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. One family seemed a bit more distant – the Perrys. They lived immediately next door.
Like many dads on the block, Ed Perry worked for Boeing. I believe he was a tradesman on the assembly line. His wife, Thelma, worked as a nurse for Group Health. In fact, at one point, she was the principal nurse for Dad’s cardiologist. The Perry’s had three boys, of similar age as my two big sisters and me.
David, the oldest, went on to a long and storied career as a rock and roll radio DJ in Los Angeles. Wayne, the middle son, became an innovative and successful corporate lawyer, owner of mobile phone companies, part-owner of the Seattle Mariners, and most famously, president of the Boy Scouts of America (Preceded by Rex Tillerson and succeeded by Robert Gates). Steve, the youngest, and just a couple years older than me, was a giant of a man. At 6’10”, he played on the high school basketball team. Last I heard about him after school, he had become a police officer.
Wayne was somehow the boy I interacted with the most. He would call me “Fanny Fart-Knocker.” This would be as close as he would get to the name Danny. Wayne seemed the toughest of the three boys, but he also had a kind of swagger and sarcasm that I found both slightly frightening and oddly appealing. My sister Laurie tells me that she and Wayne did not get along and at one point a fight resulted in her throwing a rock through the Perry’s window. Steve never had anything to do with me, even though we were closest in age. But David would interact with my big sisters, and it is through this connection that we gained insight into our parents’ neighborly relations.
David was a kind of Perry political rebel. I suppose it went with the affinity for rock and roll. My sisters found out from him that his mom was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society. David told my sister Ann that his folks had suspicions that we were communists and warned him and his brothers to stay away from us. He also said that apparently either his mom or dad contacted the FBI and that it had a wire placed on our phone.
If true, the Perry parents’ political actions against my parents were reprehensible. But they had grounds. And in that era’s terms, reasonable judgment for their suspicions. Turns out that my mom did dabble in left-wing circles during The Great Depression. As she described it, she joined a communist book club in college because “they read the most interesting books.” And both my parents were assuredly attracted as youth to social justice movements. Afterall, they became professional social workers.
Growing up in Lake Hills in the 1950s and 60s, we were surrounded by Boeing engineers, tradesmen, and political conservatives. Our family was an obvious aberration. Jewish. Politically liberal. Our house echoed with the sounds of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie. Our bookshelves contained evidence of left-wing influences. Plenty of cause for suspicion! Though it was at least slightly ironic that Thelma Perry worked as a nurse for the closest thing at the time to socialized medicine – Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound.
Move the timeline forward 50 years. I’m speaking with my son Zac, a working journalist now living in Minneapolis. I tell him about his grandpa and grandma and how we kids were told that the FBI had them under wiretap surveillance. Zac asks, “Dad, why don’t we do a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to see what records they may have on Grandma and Grandpa?”
“I had never thought of that. Yes, why not? Let’s do it,” I reply. And so, we did.
A month later we get a reply from the FBI. Yes indeed, there are FBI records on both my parents. Ten pages total on my dad. One hundred and twenty on my mom! And the dates of the records stretch from the 1940s to the 1970s! If we want to see them, the FBI writes, it will take up to two years to process them.
My immediate response to the FBI was, “Yes, I want to see them.” I also asked them if they could tell me the nature of the records.
“Were any of the records phone records?” I inquired, harkening back to the original motive for inquiry, which involved the Perrys and wiretapping. The FBI responded that they could not tell me at that time about the type of records. I thanked them for the quick reply and reiterated that I did want to see all the federal records on my parents as soon as they could provide them. I also asked whether there were any records on me. Their response a few weeks later came back. I was in the clear. There was no file on me at all.
The two years for the FBI to provide records on my folks were up this month, February 2020. Zac contacted them for an update. “It will be a year more to wait,” was the FBI’s response. Justice delayed is justice denied, of course, and one must wonder if priorities to process FOIA requests have somehow taken a nosedive in the Trump administration.
So, we are left with mysteries to uncover. Why was the FBI more interested in my mom than my dad? Could it have been because she was born in Russia? The records started before the Perrys and Farbers moved into Lake Hills. Could the FBI have in fact contacted the Perrys and asked them to spy? Or perhaps asked them after the Perrys initiated contact? And just what was so interesting about my mom? Could she have been more actively radical than I knew? Finally, if not the Perrys, who did notify the FBI to pry into my parents’ lives? Another neighbor?
Over the years, I have lived in many homes with dozens of neighbors. The value of good neighborly relations and the downside of stressful relations have both played themselves out in real time. I have tended to tread gently, not wanting to offend a neighbor. The example of the Perrys has been a constant reminder of the risk that can come from a neighboring relationship gone bad.
Sometimes, striking the right balance in neighborly relations has been a challenge for me and my wife Jean.
Jack, our male neighbor to the north, was in his 70s when we first met. He had been married to his second wife, Mary, for over a decade. Their home, built in the 1920s, was well-maintained, with an American flag proudly flying year-round. Jack greeted me as we encountered each other for the first time in our alleyway. He invited me into his wine cellar where he made his own wine and gave me a bottle of welcome. So far, so good. He told me of his career in the military. He also started discussing the neighborhood, used the “N” word, and I quickly figured out that this was a man with whom it would not be wise to engage in political conversation.
I made the strategic error of mentioning the “N” word reference to my wife. Immediately upon hearing that, she would have nothing to do with our neighbors to the north. So much for that relationship!
I did have a brief and pleasant conversation with Mary soon thereafter. She told me about our neighbor to the south. She called that property owner a “slum landlord.” The renter, a father, about 60 years old, was a musician and guitar teacher. His son was a mentally disturbed individual. Later, I ran into the father in the alleyway, and we had a polite chat. He told me that his son had difficulties, but that if he took his meds, he wouldn’t be violent. He also said that his son didn’t like taking his meds.
About a week later, I met the son in the alleyway. I went over to introduce myself. “Hello, I’m your new neighbor, Daniel,” I said in the friendliest voice I could muster.
“What’s your name, again?” he asked sternly.
“I don’t like that name,” concluded my 20-year-old neighbor. “Never talk with me again!”
Much has been written about the changing mores of neighborly communication in America. Do we know our neighbors? Do we trust them? Will we have each other’s back in an emergency?
Harriet’s story of neighborly relations in a society built on terror was an extreme example of dysfunction and danger. Our capacity to form and retain and enhance civilization really does depend to a great extent on our skills and interest in being civil with each other. Surely that must include an effective dedication to neighborliness. But neighborliness is not enough.
In Harriet’s case, her father for months had been driving that neighbor to work. He had a good job and money for gasoline, and she was needy. In a good society, kind neighborliness is rewarded. In an evil one, a human’s need for self-preservation rewards wickedness. The fragility of civilization, rests on both the kindness of neighbors, and the good judgment of the masses, to elevate and empower wise and compassionate leadership.
Anyone got a cup of sugar?
April 2021 Postscript: Still haven’t received data from our FOIA request. Standing by.