Born in Germany in 1920, he watched the Holocaust unfold as a youth, and he sees danger signs in the United States today.
Franz Wassermann is not the only person worried about his country. But he is among the few Americans who’ve seen a country upended by words and actions that most people didn’t take seriously, until it was too late.
Wassermann, a 96-year-old retired psychiatrist, has never considered himself to be a political activist. But this, he believes, is a moment that requires his voice, so he composed a brief letter, which he sent to Washington’s U.S. senators and shared with friends and family. His grandson’s partner sent a copy to me, and after I read it, I visited with Wassermann in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood to hear more of his story.
Here’s how the letter begins:
“I was born in Munich, Germany, in 1920. I lived there during the rise of the Nazi Party and left for the U.S.A. in 1938. The elements of the Nazi regime were the suppression of dissent, the purging of the dissenters and undesirables, the persecution of communists, Jews and homosexuals and the ideal of the Arians as the master race. These policies started immediately after Hitler came to power, at first out of sight but escalated gradually leading to the Second World War and the holocaust. Meanwhile most Germans were lulled into complacency by all sorts of wonderful projects and benefits.”
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He sees similarities in our country today, early warning signs of what could happen if people go along imagining that there is no real danger.
We can hope that our government of checks and balances will be more resistant than the Weimar Republic was. Don’t count on it.” - Franz Wassermann
In our time, he wrote, “The neo-Nazis and the KKK have become more prominent and get recognition in the press. We are all familiar with Trump’s remarks against all Muslims and all Mexicans. But there has not been anything as alarming as the appointment of Steve Bannon as Trump’s Chief Strategist. Bannon has, apparently, made anti-Semitic remarks for years, has recently condemned Muslims and Jews and he and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the pick as National Security Adviser, advocate the political and cultural superiority of the white race. At the same time Trump is trying to control the press.”
Wassermann wrote that the entire Nazi ideology is in place and wonders how far it will go here. “We can hope that our government of checks and balances will be more resistant than the Weimar Republic was. Don’t count on it.”
I want you to listen to him because he has seen it before. Wassermann was 12 when Hitler came to power in 1933. He said the German economy had been in bad shape for a long time, and no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. The Nazis were the last party left to turn to.
The party negotiated a softening of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which punished Germany for World War I, and the party was praised for speeding up construction of the Autobahn highway system and creating the Volkswagen. The nation acquired new territory. Everything seemed wonderful, Wasserman said. But it wasn’t.
Some of the worst was hidden from the public, but there were people who knew.
Wassermann’s father was a professor, his mother a pediatrician. His uncle ran a factory, but for all of them life changed, a little at first, and then it got rapidly worse. The government decided Jewish people shouldn’t be professors or hold leadership positions.
Wassermann’s father was forced to resign his position at the University of Munich in 1935. His uncle was removed as factory director and went back to his chemistry work, then after a time he was sent to load cargo onto trains. Eventually he himself was loaded onto a train and killed soon after.
Wassermann’s father left in 1937 to take a two-year position at the University of Chicago, but Wassermann said the government confiscated his mother’s passport and told her they would hold it for two years, essentially keeping her hostage.
Wassermann joined his father in 1938, and his mother was able to get out the next year and get his older sister from France, where she was studying, and come to America.
Wassermann kept all the letters that crossed between family in Germany and America in those years and translated them into English so that they could be a record of what happened. Actors read from the letters in two performances this year in Seattle.
And now he is reaching out in this letter of warning, which concluded with a plea:
“We have to counter this trend toward fascism in every way we can. Being alert to all manifestations in word and action. Alerting our representatives and urging them to act. Writing to newspapers. Making our friends aware. Demonstrating when appropriate.”
Could our democracy be subverted in some way similar to what happened in Germany? Only someone who doesn’t know history would say it absolutely couldn’t happen. We are responsible for protecting our democracy, which means recognizing danger signs and challenging ideas and actions that violate the ideals we claim as our own.
“I didn’t see it coming” is no longer an excuse.
Correction: Information in this article, originally published Dec. 25, 2016, was corrected Jan. 5, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Franz Wassermann’s uncle loaded people onto trains in Nazi-era Germany. His uncle loaded cargo onto trains before he was put on a train and taken to a concentration camp.