My Vote

In 1932, the German people went to the polls to choose between Hitler and President Hindenburg, the incum­bent. My parents were afraid to vote in their small home community where the citizens all knew each other by name. They feared reprisal because they could easily have been identified as anti-Nazi voters. As a family, we drove to a distant, larger town, where my mother and father voted. They took clean handker­chiefs with them into the booth and after voting used them to carefully wipe their hands because it was ru­mored that the Nazis had put chalk on the pencils used for voting: red chalk if you voted for Hitler, white for Hindenburg. The political bent of the person who ex­ited the voting booth could be identified by the color of their hand.

My two sisters and I waited in the car while my par­ents voted. We did not speak. We were terrified without knowing why. An atmosphere of danger and secrecy held us in its grip as we watched the Nazi guards in their brown uniforms with the swastika armbands march up and down in front of the voting booth. War­ily, we drove away when my mother and father fin­ished. I noticed that they sent frequent glances into the rearview mirror to reassure themselves that no one was following us. I did not understand why my par­ents risked being apprehended just to cast their ballot. In the car, on the way home, my father undoubtedly talked to us about voting, its imperfections, about con­sensus and politics. I do not recall any of that. I only recall my parents’ civic courage and brave dedication in their attempt to save Germany from disaster by cast­ing their vote, inviting imprisonment. As Jews, this was the last time they voted —to make their voices heard, as German citizens.

I vividly remember the first time I voted as an Amer­ican citizen in 1948—Thomas Dewey versus Harry Tru­man. This was the election when all the predictions were wrong and the newspapers had to revise their headlines: Truman, not Dewey, won. After I closed the black curtain of the booth and punched the buttons, I had to pull a lever to record my vote. I was awed by what this simple gesture implied: I was responsible to my country, to the world, for influencing the out­come of the election. In the privacy of the curtained space, I burst into tears, grateful that I was permitted to record my opinion without fear of retribution and that my vote would be counted among millions to de­termine the political future which American citizens would accept. When I left the voting booth, no soldiers in uniform were visible; no swastikas were in sight. I was safe. My vote was secret. No one knew or wanted to know whom I voted for.