Since retiring in 2012 my partner and I have spent 4-6 weeks each Canadian winter in Latin America studying Spanish. It’s an intensive and rewarding experience on many levels. We arrive early for school five mornings a week, participate in cultural activities afternoons and evenings, live with a family and somehow fit in a couple of hours of challenging homework each night. Unfortunately, this year’s trip to Argentina was marred by an offhand unpleasant exchange in the family home where we were billeted.
In the context of a wide-ranging conversation touching on the cost of making real estate deals in different countries, another dinner guest says in Spanish, “You know, it takes two Dutchmen to make a Jew.” We must have looked surprised and rather dismayed, not quite believing the remark had been made. Without skipping a beat our host, a distinguished retired university professor, repeats the comment in English, to ensure that we fully catch the meaning. We are appalled. Struggling to converse in our intermediate level Spanish, neither of us says anything. The moment quickly passes, conversation skips to some other topic. No notice is made of the blatantly anti-Semitic remark. Nor of our host’s odd snap decision to reinforce it.
After dinner we retire to our bedroom, right across the hallway from our hosts’. In hushed tones, unsettled and still in shock, we search for more solid ground. Do we tell them that the remark has made us uncomfortable, that it reflects a view of Jews and money that is stereotypical and unacceptable?
In this spectacularly beautiful and remote corner of northern Patagonia, how do we account for the ugly stain the remark has made? Do we report this otherwise charming, refined gentleman to the language school? What is to be gained from calling out our hosts and possibly losing the roof over our heads? What is lost by not speaking out?
I experience a strange sensation. I feel unsafe. With a full-on imagination spurred by World War II movies, I picture our host in an SS uniform, complete with jackboots and strutting behaviour. After all, Argentina was a prime destination for thousands of Nazi war criminals and other fascists as the war came to a close. I recognize the exaggerated nature of my thoughts and resolve to keep them at bay. They are not helpful. Still, we do not make mention of the remark and the feelings it has evoked.
Our host, Adam, is an archaeologist specializing in indigenous cave paintings and not unsympathetic to native peoples’ struggles for justice. He later explains to us that he was born in Poland. In approximately 1940 when he was a boy, his family had moved to England, the seat of the Polish government in exile. The family settled in Argentina after the Second World War. In his later life, he was re-learning Polish and corresponding with a long lost relative near Warsaw.
At the time of the anti-Semitic remark, I do not know on which side of the Nazi movement his family located itself. Had I known more about the history of the Polish government in exile and its very early role in warning the world – mostly unheeded – of the horrors of the German death machine, my worst fears might have been assuaged. In the chill of the moment, however, I just didn’t know with whom I was dealing.
As the days pass, several conversations – both routine and those delving into the archaeological history of the area — occur over breakfast and dinner. I am gradually more relaxed. There is never any recognition or apology for the remark, but interestingly, our host makes a point of mentioning a prominent man in the community who has done a lot of charitable work and is Jewish. Respect is expressed for this individual’s contribution to the region. I wonder if Adam has realized there was a problem, or figured out that I am Jewish.
After experiencing more than seven homestays in different Latin American countries, I can attest that the nature of the relationship with one’s host requires a delicate balance. It is a temporary but intimate connection, and one ends up learning quite a bit about the other’s personal and professional life. We also recognize, notwithstanding the remark at dinner, the good-heartedness of these people. They are not monsters. She cooks for the homeless each week and serves meals through their church. He is active with youth in the community.
I find myself questioning how such seemingly contradictory views could co-exist in one person. How is it that such an educated, highly regarded individual could express such an ignorant view? We’ll never know. But I do know now that the whole affair has marked me. I traveled to Argentina to study Spanish and came home having learned that I am more Jewish than I thought.
Once we are back in Canada, I continue to feel the churning in my gut from this experience. It is Passover and more purposefully than usual I round up friends and family for two separate Seder observances. It feels important to mark with near and dear ones the liberation story of Passover and its connection to current conditions endured by immigrants and refugees.
I also do some research into the rise in hate crimes in Canada and internationally and then make a donation to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. While what transpired over an obscure dinner table in Patagonia is not of a scale comparable to the virulent incarnations of racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia witnessed in the last few years, the comments that so irked us that evening are cut from the same cloth. In these troubling times new life is being breathed into racist and fascist movements by the likes of some European leaders, the U.S. president and others closer to home. Our collective task is to resist the putrid wave in all its forms.
I did not speak up then, although I chalk it up to my awkward foreign language skills. Yesterday, for the first time in almost fifty years, I put on a Star of David necklace once given to me by a favourite aunt. I joke that wearing it is my own private rebellion against the Quebec government’s recent offensive stand against religious minorities. In reality, I am very tentative and just want to see how it feels. In Argentina, I was silent. Today I am speaking out.
Miriam Edelson is a social activist, writer and mother living in Toronto, Canada. Her literary non-fiction, personal essays and commentaries have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CBC Radio. Her first book, “My Journey with Jake: A Memoir of Parenting and Disability” was published in April 2000. “Battle Cries: Justice for Kids with Special Needs appeared in late 2005”. She has completed a doctorate at University of Toronto focused upon Mental Health in the Workplace and is currently at work on a collection of essays. She lives with and manages the mental health challenges related to bipolar disorder.