Detention Centers, Concentration Camps, Bodies, and Words

This morning I watched a video of a Guatemalan mother, a woman my age, Yazmin Jurez, speak to the US House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, about the loss of her daughter, Mariee, because of the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of the immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona. (Watch here for a beautiful response and voice of reason from Rep. Ayanna Presley to Ms. Jurez.)

The woman and her daughter were held in a center nicknamed “The Icebox” because it was—and is—so cold inside. They were held a long time and her child became sick. When Ms. Jurez sought help, the medics said her baby had a cold and prescribed Tylenol and honey. When the woman and her child were finally released from The Icebox, Ms. Jurez rushed her daughter to the hospital, where she learned Mariee had an acute viral infection of the lungs. The hospital tried to help, but the baby girl died soon after.

Every morning, every evening, every time I read the news I feel sorrow. Grief. Rage. Grit. So often I want to speak out, to write something, to say something. I have feelings inside, like a pressure cooker, ready to be expressed and transformed into words. And yet, so often, more than I like to admit, I put my computer down because I feel my own traumas rising.

Because as I hear and read these stories of present day America, I am at the same time haunted by the stories of my Polish grandfather’s five year imprisonment and abuse in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Not only does my imagination haunt me, but also my body. My body remembers my grandfather’s traumas of holding still hypervigilance—a slight muscular bracing in my neck radiating from my jaw and the base of my skull down to my clavicles in front and behind my shoulder blades in my back, in the same area as a nun’s giant wimple. A stiff, iron, freezing grip of fear. A tension in my jaw that can last several days. Sternocleidomastoid muscles burning ice, refusing to yield, to submit to any power-over. I know the shape of my own body. I have seen my father hold it, too, and I remember seeing my grandfather move into this shape as well, even many years after he escaped the camp.

As I watched the video this morning my empathy began to ask questions, fully formed, like words being whispered to the inside my own ear—What can I do? Where do I start? What do they need? Could I do something? What am I morally obliged to do? Would it even make a difference?—and my body began to hurt with the embodied memories of my history. My body is keeping me frozen, trying to keep me safe, and silent, pulling on the wisdom of my ancestors, I realized.

My grandmother was a German civilian, with direct ties to the upper echelons of the Nazi party, at least in the early years of WWII. In those early years, she lived in beautiful bliss, believing her country was doing the right thing by “rehabilitating” people from other countries who had “problems.” She used prisoners in her weaving factory as a way to both give to the German mission of the Aryan race, and to receive labor. My grandmother paid the Dachau concentration camp a sum each month, believing what she was wold—that the officers were paying a portion of her money to the workers. Of course, no one but the German officers received her money.

But as the four years progressed, the laborers—including my future grandfather—became human men in her eyes. They became people. Friends. The men made her and her nieces gifts for Christmas, and invited her to the camp for quartet performances. My grandmother could not express her feelings directly, or she would have been in danger. Yet, surely, the Nazi stories within which she had lived—of Others and Fear and Animals and Better Than—began to shift.

She walked a narrow line between the Nazi ideals and the people she had grown to know. And I wonder what her silence felt like. Did it feel like mine feels, a tension under the base of my tongue? A slight back ache? An impulse to shrug and turn away? A pursing of the lips into a brittle line and a slight squint of my right eye? This is how my body responds when I keep feelings, and words, inside.

I know she stayed quiet, but she did not stay still. My Oma started to do what she could, with the tools at hand. When the prisoners, my future grandfather included, came on Fridays to deliver their week’s worth of woven goods, my Oma asked them to do additional tasks around the house—fix the sink, change a lightbulb, and the such—anything to keep them out of the camp a bit longer and to remind them of their humanity. She gave the men slices of bread to hide in their handcarts, to bring back to their friends in the prison. And, ultimately, she broke my grandfather and his friends out of the camp in the spring of 1945. My grandmother did not have the ability to speak out and use her words to challenge the government directly, but she acted with the resources immediately available.

And as I watched the video this morning, I realized that this woman, Yazmin Jurez, was speaking directly to our government. And people in our government were listening.

And if she can speak truth to power, what can I do, too?

Yes, my body is inflaming but, honestly, I’m tired of prioritizing my ancestor’s traumas over the in-real-time traumas of others. I can no longer choose to live in service to my grandfather’s hypervigilance or my grandmother’s silence. I’m tired of feeling complicit from within my own body. Instead, I want to follow my grandmother’s example: What do I have that is available—right here, right now—and is in my power to affect? And, yes, how can I simultaneously take care of my body, so I can continue to move forward?

Because this is happening now. I do not believe anyone deserves to be treated in this way. Ever. Not my grandfather, not Ms. Jurez or her daughter, and no one else.

Words, my friends. Words. I leaned over and picked up my laptop. I believe in the power of story to change people’s hearts and actions—indeed, Ms. Jurez moved me to write today—maybe I can move someone else.

I have come to believe, from my grandmother’s stories, that we can make a difference in actions and in words. When we do not have access to one, we may have access to the other. I am 1500+ miles away from the camps, but I do have my laptop and a heart brimming with beliefs.

I’m letting myself off the hook for sharing perfect writing. I’m letting myself off the hook for being what I believe is “powerful” or “potent” or “Act Out Loud”-esque writing. For being polished or ready. Dude, I just can’t think about it any more. I’m feeling out of my integrity and in complicity by not verbalizing my truth. Complicity is choosing not to speak or act when we have the power to do so, and I’m choosing, like my grandmother, to do something different.

TO THE FAMILIES AT THE BORDER, CAUGHT IN THE TERRIBLE, INHUMAN CONDITIONS: I SEE YOU AS HUMAN. I respect you. I know this is wrong. I know you have names, and families, and stories. I know you are suffering PTSD from this. I will not forget. I am angry at our government for doing what they are doing—and for not doing what I believe they should. I promise to offer my words in support of your harms, as I believe it is the most moral and effective use of my energy.

TO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE KEEPING MIGRANT FAMILIES AND CHILDREN FROM HEALTH, WHOLENESS, SAFETY, AND HUMAN RIGHTS: I DO NOT SUPPORT YOUR ACTIONS. I WILL NOT STAND WITH THEM. I do not condone your choices or your timelines. My grandfather suffered in a camp seventy nine years ago, and our lineage is still in pain. I know from personal, embodied experience that your actions are causing unnecessary harm. America is incredibly wealthy and has access to resources; no one at the border deserves or needs to be treated in this way, no matter the political decisions or political complications. You are humans, you all have choices, and you have the opportunity to choose a new way for the sake of other humans.

AND TO ANYONE ELSE READING THIS, I ASK A QUESTION—WITH LOVE AND EARNESTNESS: WHAT CAN YOU SAY OR DO, OF ANY SCALE? What tool or skill is within your reach or maybe you have already mastered, that just might help tip the balance for a someone who deserves humanity and dignity?

Shall we try to make some changes, in our million different ways, together?

~Written in honor of Mariee Jurez