Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Papers, Please

Well, at least they're polite about it, right?

We all know this phrase from movies or books of one of the world wars growing up.  Usually, it was the mean Germans "asking"; but now it appears we have met the enemy and he is us.

Husband and I (re-)watched Louis Malle's 1987 movie Au Revoir Les Enfants last night.  It was released in English as Goodbye, Children, but I happened to be in Germany the first time I saw it, so my version was initially Auf Wiedersehen Kinder.  It's an incredibly powerful movie, whatever the language, and left a huge impression on me at the time and ever since.  Based on the director's own experience as a child attending a Roman Catholic boarding school near Fountainebleau during the German occupation in the Second World War, it recounts an attempt by the boarding school's head priest to save the lives of three Jewish boys by hiding them out in the open as school boys.  Jean Kippelstein becomes Jean Bonnet.  Eventually, they are found out (no doubt by someone reporting the situation to the Gestapo) and, with the head priest, are sent to their deaths at concentration camps.

As mournful as all of that is, perhaps the most moving scene is one where Julien Quentin (Malle as a boy?) has asked his wealthy mother (who is there on Parents' Day) to invite his friend Jean along for lunch (we don't know where Jean's parents are but can reasonably assume the worst).  During lunch, some Vichy collaborators enter and spy an elegantly-dressed, elderly man dining alone.  Guessing (correctly) that he is Jewish, they ask/demand to see his papers (as Jews are barred from dining there).  The Restaurateur attempts to explain that Mr. Mayer has been a patron for 20 years, as the rest of the diners spontaneously rise to tell the Vichy men to get lost.  Ironically, it is a German soldier sitting with some comrades, attempting to enjoy their lunch, who finally orders the Vichy men out.

Starting to sound familiar?

And here is the point:  the collaborators did not come into that restaurant to ask everyone for their papers.  They came in to scan the premises for Jews.  Mr. Mayer fit the bill.  We can only assume that Jean wasn't asked because they either didn't get around to it before be told to leave or that he was sitting with a family not deemed Jewish-looking enough.

It's called racial-profiling, and it would appear that we have learned nothing in 65 years....or indeed 2000, given so many of those pushing the kind of anti-immigration policies signed into law in Arizona by Gov. Jan Brewer -- or those applauding it like Sarah "We're all Arizonans Now" Palin -- keep telling us that we are a "Christian Nation".  These modern-day Pharisees would like us to remember that we are a "nation of laws", but they seem to forget that this is God's land and they are nothing but vipers who will not escape judgment.

Watching Au Revoir Les Enfants last night, I was reminded that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and that today's instability has a whiff of Weimar about it (minus the inflation -- for now) with its shameful need to find scapegoats.  One distinction, perhaps fitting given that history's black and white world is now brilliantly colorful and in HD, is that it looks like our century's fascists will wear lipstick.