The foreboding has been mounting all summer. In May, the so-called “alt-right” gathered a small mob around the statue of Robert E Lee which sits in the little park a block away from the only synagogue in town.
My son played in that park while he went to Jewish pre-school. He had his barmitzvah in that synagogue. The park also hosts an annual multicultural festival (founded by a Jewish friend) for immigrants who have settled locally. Lee looked down from his horse onto the festival.
The mob that appeared in June was led by two deranged University of Virginia alumni. They brandished absurd “tiki” torches, evoking fascist and KKK mobs of the past, and the images immediately saturated local and national media. It was surreal, theatrical, and ominous.
In July, the KKK of North Carolina came to the same site. A pathetic assembly of the poorly educated; I almost felt sorry for them. They were vastly outnumbered by local counter-demonstrators and they left with heads low.
Then an event billed as “Unite the Right” was announced - the largest gathering of American fascists in more than three decades. Their poster featured a Star of David with a mallet poised to smash down on it.
By Thursday the dread was palpable. I could barely function. A Jewish colleague who is also a rabbi checked to see how I was feeling. My mother and grandparents escaped Vienna when Hitler invaded Austria. My aunt and other relatives were deported and murdered in a concentration camp. My mother became a hidden child in Belgium and wrote a memoir about it.
On Friday, the night before the planned alt-right invasion, there was to be an interfaith gathering at a local church. Our local rabbis led a moving, Yiddish-inflected song with the standing-room-only crowd, followed by a minister leading gorgeous black gospel freedom songs.
But suddenly the people in the church were trapped inside because hundreds of torch-bearing fascists were marching up the winding hill toward the historic grounds of the university.
You will have heard the slogans they were lustily chanting. Unhindered, they raided the university grounds. They marched in front of the music building where I work, then stood brandishing their torches on Jefferson’s Lawn where I know every inch of space, where I have taught diverse students for 20 years to sing and dance in the peaceful traditions from the rainforest of Central Africa – learning to make sounds that are the polar opposite of Nazi chants.
As I watched the spectacle unfold I remembered how a few years ago my class was drumming on that same grass when the late Julian Bond, Civil Rights hero and UVA professor of history, walked by alone, stopping for a moment. I imagined what he was feeling as West African rhythms echoed across the lawn toward the Rotunda, built by slaves. It felt like a triumphant moment. Now instead I saw Nazis marching through that same space, defiling, violating – and those images will linger for a long time. That was the intent.
We all know now about the terrible violence the next day in Charlottesville. I was scheduled to offer a community singing workshop among a slate of alternative gatherings at the university. When I got there the place was deserted, everything cancelled in a state of emergency. What felt life affirming and beautiful was being erased by the moment, falling into emptiness.
I was not about to face off with a bunch of armed fascists, so I went home to make sure that my son and his friend also stayed put.
Then there was the terrorist murder. That evening, a planned combined Havdalah ceremony watching the meteor shower and eating dessert in a backyard organised by a friend was called off. Instead the rabbi quietly removed the Torah scrolls from the synagogue premises amid threats of arson.
Fear still hovers in a shaken Charlottesville in the days that have followed. We have met as a community to plan what must happen next, we have re-taken the streets, but warily.
I worry about my teenager moving through town with his friends as he tries to enjoy the last days of summer. I am proud of our local, close-knit Jewish community and proud of my Charlottesville neighbors, especially the African American leaders determined to affect a just change.
Next week as classes begin a new set of students – black, white, Jewish, Muslim, Latinx, gay, straight, more – will flood the lawn and there I will teach some of them to sing. It will sound different than before.
- Michelle Kisliuk is Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Music