The Counter


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October 19, 2020

The Counter

By Erica Johnson Debeljak

  • child parent separation
  • child separation
  • Democracy
  • Holocaust
  • immigration
  • USA
  • WWII

In mid-September 2020, allegations surfaced in the media that Spanish-speaking female detainees in a privately-owned ICE immigration center in the American state of Georgia were being given hysterectomies without their consent. The claim, now being investigated, combines such an unholy and ghoulish combination of ingredients – women’s bodies, misogyny, racism, eugenics, immigration, incarceration – that it got my attention even in an endless news cycle saturated with unholy, ghoulish news. 

Around the same time, I was watching the Netflix series Immigration Nation about the activities of the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency ICE, and also the short documentary film The Last Time I Saw Them featuring interviews of Holocaust survivors who had been separated from their families. Several things struck me as I watched these two accounts of family separation (because, in the end, all but the most humane immigration policies have at their core family separation): the passion for incarceration and all the fetishism that goes along with it (handcuffs, uniforms, barracks, paperwork), the stoicism with which the incarcerated or soon-to-be-incarcerated (or indeed incinerated) confront unspeakable suffering, and the fundamental transaction that resides at the center of it all, which I metaphorically call “the counter.”

The transaction does not always take place around a literal, physical counter, but inevitably features a supplicant on one side of a metaphorical barrier and a person imbued with some kind of authority on the other. The supplicant is usually in distress, even trauma. So, for example, we might have a woman with an infection approaching the counter to seek gynecological assistance from a medical professional. Or we might have the asylum seeker approaching the counter to request assistance from the customs official to process his claim. There is one such counter in the history of my family: the counter at a provincial police station where we went to confirm that my husband had died in a road accident and requested to see his body one last time. 

In the late spring of 2018, when the “zero tolerance” family separation policy began to be implemented on the US’s southern border (ultimately separating more than two thousand children from their parents), the most typically sentimental images circulating in the media were of small children at the feet of armed officials, arms raised, mouths opened in a howl of agony and protest. But it is the passive, stoic, not hysterical adults whom I find more heartbreaking: my mother-in-law who did not fall to the floor screaming that she had to see her son one more time when the policeman at that provincial police station turned her away; the father calming his weeping child with assurances that they would soon be reunited; the Bosnian civilians who, following the instructions of UN soldiers, meekly walked out of the Srebrenica safe haven into the arms of their killers; the bourgeois Jews, who, having long placed their trust in the humane workings of society, obediently disrobed and stepped into the gas chambers. 

One interviewee in The Last Time I Saw Them, Anita, resided on the cusp between the weeping child and the stoic adult when she was separated from her family. She was fourteen years old (her mother had convinced the authorities that she was eighteen) and about to be transferred from a death camp to a hard labor camp where she would have more chance of surviving. But the child in her had second thoughts, lifting her arms, opening her mouth, crying “mommy, mommy.” A female guard at the camp took Anita to her office and gave her a cup of cocoa – this for the child – and convinced the adult to go, to survive, to leave her mommy behind. This office was also a metaphorical counter and the authority showed humanity to the supplicant on the other side of it in an inconceivably inhuman system. The counter represents our trust in humanity, our trust in society and in social arrangements, and as long as we approach it, we still have some tiny bit of hope in our hearts, some lingering belief in the humanity of the person and the system on the other side of it. But if that trust is ever completely depleted, then there is no society left and the only humanity resides in resistance. 

Erica Johnson Debeljak is an American-Slovenian writer and translator, an American expatriate living in Slovenia. Her essays and stories have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Glimmer Train, Prairie Schooner, The Missouri Review, Nimrod, Epoch, Common Knowledge, and Eurozine.

Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. (Fortunoff Video Archive).

This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?

Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project here. Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here

The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research


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