Dear Mama, It Makes Sense Now


Cody Ferguson

Holocaust Permanent Exhibition in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

Alessandra Sanders, [email protected], Contributor

Walking through the United States Capitol is as awe-inspiring for one person as much as the next, but there’s a perspective you can’t understand unless you’ve walked in it. That is being a second generation American. I will speak of my experiences in this space, as I am fully aware I cannot speak to every second generation American’s experience. 

Given one day to yourself in Washington, D.C., you might walk through the Smithsonian Museums along the mall, go to the Shakespeare Theatre, possibly even go shopping. I chose to explore the Holocaust Museum. My friends and I walked in and met a door. What may have seemed simply infrastructurally heavy to my friends, held a heavy conscience for myself. We walked through security and were then guided to the freight elevator that took us to the fourth floor. From there we were told the exhibit would lead us back down to the ground floor. 

The first thing I recognized was the face of the man who was responsible for 6 million deaths in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. I will not speak his name because I believe there is no use in giving his name any of my breath when it has cost him nothing, not even his life, for the things he has done. 

As I walked further into the exhibit, I noticed a Nazi uniform that was too small for a man but big enough for a teenage boy. The swastika on his armband told me he was taught to hate. Taught to never yield to a Jewish man. Taught to never see a Jew as human. What strikes me is the thought that my teenage brother could fit into that uniform. In a different time and place, I think to myself and wish to say out loud, “he’s just a boy. HE IS JUST A BOY”. How does a parent take pride in this hatred festering within their child? HE WAS ONLY A BOY.

This is not to excuse his actions but to say, how many of us walk in subservience to the hatred our parents taught us? Is this boy a more extreme version of the hate we all carry within, taught to us by our elders never to be questioned?

As I continued my walk through the exhibit, I learned refuge was sought out by several Jews at the beginning of the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses. The Polish, Roman and many other European Jews boarded boats in hopes of finding a new home where they would not have to be persecuted. They did not succeed. 

Among the many who turned these boats away was the United States. Our ports were closed to them. We would do nothing until the Liberation. We would stand aside in silence until the smoldering ashes took their course and finally went out. We don’t stand until there’s nothing left to be prevented; we just collect the ruin.

The true meaning of being American is being safe and protected. It also means that you take these liberties for granted and don’t think about the wish  someone else had for you to be safe and protected. That is my experience. If I hadn’t walked through those doors, I would have felt it was just a thought in my mind that should go unrecorded. 

As Americans, it seems we forget we are a country founded by immigrants. A lot of the time, we reference Einstein’s work without realizing that he was a Jew himself and  the only reason he stayed alive was because Americans were capitalizing on his intellectual property. They were building weapons from a blueprint that came from a man who came from a family of Jews. 

Maybe the only way we can know is to listen, and the only way we can show we’re listening is to share, to do something, even if it is an op-ed in your school’s newspaper.

If someone asks me what I learned by going to D.C. over spring break of my senior year of undergrad, I will say this: I learned there is a story that allows the child of an immigrant to understand that where they are cost blood, pain, and tears. It cost her the story of refuge from her mother’s recollection. It costs the retelling of this story  every time she reaches a new level of maturity. Once she walks the streets of the nation’s capital for a week. Once she hears every story coming back to her all at once as she lives in her skin without expecting any sort of accommodation. The dream her grandparents had for her was to live. 

So live she shall. She’ll dream big and speak up. She’ll shed tears as she grows up. She’ll continue to realize that everyday she wakes up is someone else’s answered prayer and fight coming to life in her. 

I am her. I am a first generation college student and second generation American. I am thought of as intelligent by others but think of myself as doing what I should. After all, this is America. This is the land that my grandparents felt would harbor safety for their children and their grandchildren. I am only doing what I should and nothing more. I will not take this for granted.