On this day in 1830, the House of Representatives passed the Indian Removal Act. The new law, signed two days later, authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate with southern Native American tribes––the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations––to remove them from their ancestral lands. Yes, Jackson is the guy Trump wants to keep on the $20 bill instead of replacing him with Harriet Tubman.
The Native Americans and their African slaves were forced to resettle on federal territory west of the Mississippi. The law amounted to systematic genocide because it completely discriminated against an ethnic group. On the 1838 march, known as the Trail of Tears, vast numbers of these tribes perished because of the cold, hunger, and disease.
A century later, my mother, Irena Goldberger, was a precocious teenager in Kraków avidly reading adventure stories about the American West. In books by the late 19thcentury German writer Karl May, she learned how the Old West was won by slaughtering Native Americans. He was influenced by James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans(1826), which my mother also read.
When the Germans invaded Soviet-held eastern Poland in June 1941, my mother and her parents were in Lwów along with 250,000 other Jews. About half of them were refugees who, like Goldbergers, had fled western Poland when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. My mother, then 16, felt certain that she and her parents had no a chance of survival as Jews."I had the perception because I read about the American Indians," she told my sisters and me, "and I knew that we were doomed." She identified with the Native Americans and recognized the fate of Europe's Jews before her parents did.
In his tales, Karl May wrote of the friendship and adventures of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, an Apache chief. Although May never travelled to the West and there are inaccuracies, children in Middle and Eastern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries read and adored him. In the first Winnetou book, Old Shatterhand meets a gunsmith who is fashioning a new kind of firearm with a twenty-five round repetition carbine. May raises the moral question of whether the gunsmith would be an accessory to murder, might even be as bad as a murderer, if every villain acquired his weapons. The Indians would be annihilated—slaughtered everywhere, Old Shatterhand argues—on the prairies, in the forests, in the canyons. My mother understood that May's main message was the injustice of the destruction of all the Native American tribes and collusion in that crime.
The Last of the Mohicans is set during the French and Indian Warin the mid-18thcentury. A white man named Hawkeye is friendly withthe Mohican chief, Chingachgook. The chief has one son, the brave Uncas.
During a raid on a settlement, Uncas tries to save the daughters of the camp's governor. But a villainous Huron warrior named Magua wants one of the daughters, Cora, for his wife. He captures her and they and his cohort traverse the rocky Catskill mountains back to his village. Cora refuses to cooperate and tells Magua that he can kill her if he wishes. As they approach a jagged precipice, Magua demands that Cora choose his wigwam or his knife. On the edge of the cliff with arms outstretched toward heaven, Cora cries, "I am thine! Do with me as thou seest best!"
At that moment Uncas, who with the girls' father and Hawkeye has been trailing the party, leaps toward them from a ledge above. During a struggle, Magua recoils and one of his loyal tribesmen stabs Cora. Magua then kills Uncas, but Hawkeye arrives and shoots Magua.
With these stories in mind, in the fall of 1941 my mother begged her parents to buy false papers so that they could impersonate Polish Catholics. My grandfather resisted because he did not have the money, was too proud to ask our wealthy American relatives here for it, and he feared the money would be wasted on useless documents. Afterall, they did not look the part.
Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler also was a Karl May fan. He, too, studied the United States government's treatment of Native Americans and applied it to the Jews. Ignoring May's Christian message of peaceful coexistence, Hitler praised Winnetou's tactical abilities and had special editions distributed to generals and soldiers at the front. Toward the end of the war, Hitler modelled the death marches of concentration camp inmates from one camp to another on the Trail of Tears.
My mother was spared the horrors of the camps and marches partly because she did not yield until my grandfather asked for money to buy false papers. She prevailed because of those stories of slaughter, her prescience, and enormous luck. Thus, she narrowly avoided destruction in one of the greatest crimes against humanity.
I'll tell you another time about how those stories helped propel my mother out of the Tarnów ghetto and her decision to go to Germany.
WeAre1: A Family of the Hounded