Opting Out of Freedom

During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany, a young woman found herself traveling on a packed tram. She was Jewish but living in hiding and pretending to be a non-Jew so as to save herself and the few people in her family who were still alive. The tram was not only packed to the brim, but also filled with German officers, raising the risk of her being caught.

The woman was sitting next to a Polish peasant woman who was in town to sell produce. At one point during the ride, an insane impulse grabbed hold of the woman, and she suddenly reached out and pinched the peasant’s leg, right there, in the middle of the packed tram, crawling with Germans.

This could have been the end of her. The Nazis could have grabbed her and snuffed out her life, as they did with millions of others. The reason I know she did not meet her end is that I would not be here to tell the story if she had: The young woman was my grandmother.

What happened? The peasant woman did not scream out in pain or curse my grandmother. She kept still, quiet and unresponsive to my grandmother’s unprovoked violence. The tram continued on its bumbling way, and my grandmother, perhaps drawing a long breath, was saved by the peasant woman’s grace.

I have thought about this story countless times over the years. My grandmother never gave a straight answer to why she acted in this manner, putting her life at risk on a whim. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to realize that my grandmother’s act was not necessarily meaningless, even if it was extremely reckless.

I have come to believe that her act — a rather reprehensible act of violence — was an impulsive act of defiance. It was a way of punching fate in the face, as it were, and challenging it to a fight at a time of extreme oppression and total absence of freedom. Showing her hostile and ruthless surroundings that she was there, too, not just a shadow hiding from extinction, but a living being forced to spend her every breathing moment guarding her life from extinction.

But why did the peasant woman keep quiet? She did not know my grandmother and she could have screamed and cursed her, drawing the attention of the German officers. My guess is that this rare woman, stoic as she was, instinctively realized that any pinch from my grandmother was a caress compared to the pain that the Germans would have unleashed and she would have no part of it. She saved herself, most likely, along with my grandmother.

After the war, the occupier’s flag changed and instead of the swastika came the hammer and sickle as the Soviets mercilessly snuffed out any brief euphoria. Eastern Europe was a place bereft of freedom, where the thought police controlled all avenues of communication and the only accepted speech was that parroting the communist slogans of the Soviet politburo.

My grandmother continued her life in this “communist paradise,” where there was no freedom from communist orthodoxy — although conditions in Poland were far from being the worst among the countries behind the Iron Curtain — and where, in the words of George Orwell, if you wanted to keep a secret, it was best to keep it hidden even from yourself.

Having been inoculated against any and all versions of communism and socialism from a very early age — a natural consequence of having felt the effects of those ideologies in real life and not just as “beautiful” theories — I often marvel at the speed with which history is forgotten.

It has only been a quarter of a century since the United States conclusively won the Cold War against the Soviets, yet I often ask myself whether the Soviets aren’t metaphorically jumping for joy from their place in hell, considering how political correctness has permeated public discourse in the United States and Western Europe.

After all — and tragically very few people know this — the standard tropes of political correctness, especially in Israel-related discourse, were conceived by the Soviets. When young people think they are fighting for social justice and freedom, they are often repeating Soviet tropes that would have made Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev proud. It was he who, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, told Yasser Arafat that the invasion amounted to “the same genocide against Palestinians that the Nazis committed against other people during World War II.”

The terrible accusation that Israel is an apartheid state is also a Soviet invention, which has refused to die even after the demise of its inventors. There is a certain irony in the fact that young college-age Americans, who in the old days would have been fighting the Soviets, are now reciting Soviet slogans.

I wonder at the ease with which perfectly free people throw away their freedom of speech in favor of living up to the expectations of political correctness, rigid as they are in all their reductionist groupthink. Living in free societies, they are seemingly incapable of appreciating how precious that freedom is, and how easily it can be snuffed out. Not by invading armies of the totalitarian kind, but by the equally totalitarian impulse to adhere to a particular rendition of reality.

Current generations living in the West have never gone through the experience of being reduced to complete silence, desperately communicating their anger by pinching total strangers on trams. They have the entire world at their feet and still they choose to narrow it to its smallest components, censoring themselves and others who disagree with them, until all that is left is the embarrassing sight of shrunken, small minds, fearful of sticking out in the crowd.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness, and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better,” George Orwell wrote in his satirical book “1984.” Political correctness, and all the ills of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice that flow from it, can only become as pervasive as it is when the majority prefers happiness over freedom.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.