These testimonies illustrate for me the personal stories of the twentieth century’s most terrifying examples of systemic collapse and failure. While no age is without shabby compromises, we look at the last century because of the scale of the human cost for failures of diplomacy and government.
Personally, these stories brought to mind a student, Jonathan, who recently took my college writing class. He’s a first-year full-time student who manages a fast-food restaurant in City Heights, a dense refugee-packed neighborhood in San Diego.
Four years ago, he was my strongest 8th grade English student in middle school. He was the hardest worker and received many awards and much praise at his promotion. One “Reading Wednesday” he described to me how his mother died in the desert.
He was reading about a future job in the Border Patrol.
You don’t mind if I tell you something, Jonathan whispered to me, clearing his throat. No, I pulled a chair beside his desk. I turned up the piano music so the rest of the class could quietly read.
My mother was a big lady, he said. Too big, you know, unhealthy. We’d paid the coyote, it was August, and he must have detected the Border Patrol nearby. He ran away. He left us out there. Lo abandonado’. We had come so far. We thought we’d made it. We waited in the sun. We waited so long. We waited until I forgot why: Were we waiting for my mother to stand up? For the coyote to return? For the patrol to leave?
But the heat was too strong, he said. She was lying down and we fanned her. We had our papers, she didn’t. We couldn’t leave her in Mexico, not alone. But no matter what we tried she just couldn’t move. We said we’d come back for her. But when we did, it was too late. I hope you don’t mind me saying it, I know it’s reading time.
I asked him, Why would you want to work for the Border Patrol after that?
Well, Jonathan said, if I was on the border, I could help the next people who came across. I wouldn’t let anyone die out there. Not on the border. I could save people.
The documentary, threaded with stories of external collisions upon individual lives, also spurred memories of fifteen years ago when I saw breakdown and failure in New Orleans.
A public high school had finally hired me in August 2005, only two days before the semester began. I was 22 and had been waiting weeks for a job. I taught 15 days before the levees broke and destroyed the city. I’d heard of the “bad” school’s notorious reputation.
Yet, with all this scary hype, my first memory is of Byroneisha’s jangling bracelets. She wore all of them on one arm the day she visited me before class. “You’re the new teacher, huh? You going to make English fun?” I remember the necklace Andrew traded me on a Friday for a bathroom pass. I made trades to ensure students wouldn’t skip class. He skipped anyway.
So now, fifteen years later, I still have Andrew’s necklace.
The hurricane struck on a weekend. I never saw those students again.
Hurricane Katrina knocked out my classroom windows. But it was the black water, rushing in from old shoddy canals, that burst with such terrific force that even locked metal doors flung open inside the school. The city’s students eventually scattered. Some found themselves in distant schools while others huddled in the Superdome, waiting for food and water, listening to the roof being peeled back by the wind. Like today’s pandemic, the infirm were carried out on stretchers. Children wandered around confused adults. And families were abandoned to the heat, the filthy waters, and a long wait for the authorities that had already failed them.
The documentary offers individual stories in the worst moments of social collapse into barbarism. Obviously, it resonates in our time: right-wing propaganda, scapegoating, paramilitary goons, camps, guards, secret border crossings. Hearing author Heda Kovaly discuss her murdered mother or Fred Marguiles describe his escape on the kindertransport made me think of future breakdowns and refugees of future storms, both human and natural. After all, I am preparing to teach another semester online in a pandemic that has killed 200,000 people.
Failure is often the theme teachers discuss about their work. The feeling lingers over our past lessons like a specter. Much like the artist who knows the ideal is never reached, a teacher’s work always seems insufficient in light of intentions. Now, the systemic failures, deepening in their magnitude, remind me of Eastern Europe’s generation of the 1930s and 1940s, when politics and economics collapsed into gangsterism, tribalism, and fear.
More than any future cataclysm, this documentary spurs questions about how individuals who emerge from collapse remember. In Austerlitz W.G. Sebald wrote about one survivor, “No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open.” These testimonies of the Shoah illustrate how and what survivors remember about their family’s personal fate. But I wonder, for young people today, how the legacy of current failures will haunt them? Will our public failings rot their trust in other people? Will our collapses turn them against society? Will it erode their belief in the integrity of institutions and drive them into pessimism and away from the civic participation that maintains liberal societies? Or will it offer a path to understanding the necessity of supporting institutions and to make demands in individualistic societies for deeper solidarity?
Brett Warnke is a MFA graduate student at San Diego State University; he has been a public school teacher in Gary, Indiana, San Diego, California and in Greater New Orleans; graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington and earned his M.A. at The New School for Social Research.
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Margulies family (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.