Aunt Jeanne, Donald Trump and me: a modern Passover tale

Photos from a gypsy concentration camp in 1942 in Nazi-occupied France

Last summer, I moved from New York City to New Haven. I explained to friends that I wanted to help my sister care for our elderly aunt, then 89 and dying. What I didn’t tell them was much about my aunt.

On the surface there was not much to tell. My aunt Jeanne was a simple person who led a simple life. She had a high school education, worked as a legal secretary in her younger years, lived in a studio apartment and never married. She retired in her 50s, grew old, her friends passed away and then, this past fall her turn came too, and we buried her in New Jersey next to her older sister, my mother. But things are actually never quite so simple and her life story was anything but.

Aunt Jeanne was always very generous to my sister and me, in all ways that an aunt can be. But this warm and loving aunt faced the world in quite a different way. She harbored deep suspicions of just about everyone outside of the family. She did not like to meet new people. In restaurants and stores, she was fearful that she was being overcharged. On the street, she was fearful about her physical safety. At home, she was fearful of being robbed. Did you lock the door, was a question that sprang readily from her lips.

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From whence all the suspicion and fear? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that her real name was not Jeanne but Hanni. Perhaps it could be explained by knowing that a portion of her childhood was spent in hiding, living under a false name, separated from her parents, in Nazi-occupied France. Or maybe it had something to do with the terrors she experienced as a young teen-ager, escaping from France into Spain by crossing the Pyrenees on foot, with an unreliable guide who abandoned her and her family midway.

Or more likely still, it may have had a great deal to do with the robbers who in the high mountains fell upon them, relieved them of their few possessions and perhaps sexually abused my aunt and my mother in the presence of their parents, my grandparents. I say perhaps because my sister and I really do not know. Certain vibrations and subtle clues on those rare occasions when they recounted the story of their harrowing escape intimated that something happened. Exactly what, if anything at all, we have always been left to guess.

My aunt, my mother and their parents made it to Barcelona, where they were arrested by Franco’s Guardia Civil. As unwelcome Jewish refugees, they were detained overnight and sent back to the French border, on the precipice of falling into the custody of the Nazis, with deportation east and certain death to follow. Fortunately, a timely bribe, paid by a Spanish cousin in Barcelona, achieved its purpose.

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After an interval in Spain, my aunt, my mother and my grandparents — thanks to yet other relatives in our sprawling family — obtained papers to enter the United States. Amid the very different terrors of the Battle of the Atlantic, they traversed the ocean aboard the Serpa Pinto and in 1943 entered the Port of Philadelphia, where the less exceptional phase of my aunt’s life commenced.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. 20 years younger than my aunt, the lines of correspondence between his life and hers are eerie to contemplate. Perhaps the revulsion I feel toward our country’s president has something to do with his embrace of the slogan America First, the name of the movement, rife with anti-Semites in its ranks, that in the 1930s sought to leave the Jews of Europe to their fate, that fought to keep America’s borders closed to those fleeing for their lives. Or with his undisguised personal bigotry, directed not at Jews but at Muslims, Hispanics and blacks.

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Then there is the fact that Donald Trump is himself a kind of robber. Across a lifetime, he has preyed on the vulnerable, stiffing contractors and craftsmen, engaging in fraudulent schemes, deceiving those naive enough to sign up for worthless instruction at Trump University. And then again there is the fact that he is a sexual predator who has openly boasted of grabbing women by the genitals. “When you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything.”.

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“You can do anything” — those are the words of unbridled power. Across an ocean and decades in time, those are the same words that played in the minds of the lawless men my aunt and mother encountered in the Pyrenees. When you’re a robber in the mountains with unarmed helpless Jews, “you can do anything.”.

There are certain criminal types who appear again and again across time and place and leave their stamp on history. Born in a different moment and under different circumstances, what role would Donald Trump have played? We cannot know and can only judge him by a lifetime of low words and tawdry behavior. But with my aunt and mother both in their graves, fortunate to die peaceful deaths in our blessed land, it is difficult to accept that someone of his type is America’s president, the most powerful man on the face of the earth.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld.

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