Sunday Songs: Neutral Milk Hotel – “Holland, 1945”


I stood outside of one stadium, waiting to get into another, fortunate to be standing in a part of the line where the surprising March sun kept me warm. Alongside the queue, activists and agitators passed by, each promoting their own agenda, or, in a few cases, simply their wares.

My phone was my lone companion, and I found ways to remain engrossed in it as I counted the minutes until the doors opened and the crowd began moving forward, even as people kept trying to draw my attention to their causes. At home, I had copies of one petition, while the others I wasn’t educated enough on to sign on a whim. I didn’t need any more t-shirts. And I didn’t care what the guy on the bike, with some speech blaring out of speakers, had to say.

As the bicyclist passed, the man ahead of me turned around and asked if that was a Trump supporter who rode by. I shrugged, saying I hadn’t heard enough to even tell whose voice it was, and the man in front of me suggested that, if the presumed Trump supporter returned, we should raise our hands in the Nazi salute and should “Heil Hitler!”

I replied that I was Jewish—a rare acknowledgement of my former faith and culture—and, surprisingly, the man kept talking.


The temple where I grew up was the biggest one in town, I think, but it was for Reform Jews, the least observant of the lot, the kind I call “Christmas and Easter Jews” to explain typical attendance. Its sanctuary could hold 1,500, and while on the High Holy Days attendance was so high that it required two services, with tickets sold for each, most weeks, only a few dozen people filled the cavernous room.

There was one man at my temple, a friend of my grandparents named Max, who always struck me as small for an adult male. After I’d seen him around for years, I learned his horrific history: He was a Holocaust survivor.

Maybe he was the only one at our temple. More than fifty years had passed since the end of the war at that point, and it had already become a relic of the history books, or a conversation for my grandfather, who served in the dying days of the Pacific theater, to snap at me for at the dinner table. Of course we had to drop the atomic bombs, he argued, never explaining why he was right any my history teacher was wrong. It was only after his demise that I learned my grandfather had been a medic in Japan, possibly tending to the wounds of those we’d harmed.

In college, I interviewed a Holocaust survivor for the student newspaper, a feature that earned me more praise around the office than anything I’d written to that point. I was shocked by the reaction, if only because it was so easy for me to write. Her story resounded so strongly, I simply had to connect the dots. But re-reading it just now, the mental image of this woman, then only a child, face-to-face with Dr. Mengele chills me far more than it did before.

It’s funny how nightmares change over time.


Fall, 2004, New York City. One day, on my lunch break, I walked a few blocks to a Burger King to grab some food, only to have a clipboard thrust in my hand as soon as I walked in. Cameras blanketed the space, and the clothing of the man asking for my signature on a waiver indicated that an episode of The Apprentice was being shot, one where the two teams were tasked with selling the restaurant’s new fancy burgers. I passed on the offering, and when I watched that episode months later—the only episode of that show I ever watched—I was relieved to not see my face, even in the background.

Even better: At that Burger King, Trump was nowhere to be seen.

Those were better days, when the mogul was confined to one hour a week on an easily ignorable channel, instead of becoming the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement. Even now, it’s hard for me to take him seriously, as I keep lecturing my friends about all the data FiveThirtyEight has churned out, about opinion polls and primary turnout.

But it doesn’t take much to turn the fringe into the mainstream, as the right wing has demonstrated so ably in the past decade. When I stop to think, when I really contemplate the possibility, I force myself to joke instead. Because it can’t happen here, can it?

I’ve been to Holland. And 1945 really wasn’t that long ago.

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