In Vermont, Becca Balint’s congressional run is inspired by her Holocaust survivor father

JTA — Becca Balint cupped her palms to her cheeks, mimicking her Holocaust survivor father’s horror when he learned the postman was friendly.

“He was very, very anxious that the postmaster seemed to know a lot about my life and the other streets I lived on,” she said, describing her move to Brattleboro, Vermont, a few years ago. about 15 years.

Perched on her porch couch, Balint leaned into the Zoom camera. “And the mailman came by and, you know, he said, ‘Oh my God, how do you do that? How do you live in a small town where everyone knows your business? »

Balint, 54, the Democratic candidate for Vermont’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, is running a campaign that is both defined by his family’s Holocaust experience and seeks to reach beyond it.

If elected (and she’ll likely be in a district that Cook’s nonpartisan political report deemed safe for Democrats), she’ll arrive with a philosophy defined by the Holocaust. to an extent not seen since Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who was the sole survivor elected to Congressdied in office in 2008.

“What happened to my family during the Holocaust guided me all my adult life, it guided me to a compassionate person, to try, you know, to heal the divisions,” she said. declared. “That moment of watching the rise of autocrats and authoritarianism, it’s not theoretical for me. It had a direct impact on my family and [it’s important] to make that connection for people, that it’s not something that happened so long ago and it still affects us now, and that can be a guide to how we do things right now moment.

Vermont Senate Speaker Pro Tem Becca Balint delivers a victory speech to supporters gathered at the Harmony Lot in Brattleboro, Vermont on August 9, 2022. (Kristopher Radder/AP)

In a surprisingly candid interview, Balint explained that her mother is not Jewish and that she is married to Elizabeth Wohl, who also has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Balint describes his family as “Jewish”.

“My spiritual life is an amalgamation of Judaism, Quakerism and Buddhism – and I know some of your readers may find this uncomfortable or even offensive,” she wrote in an email Friday, a day after the ‘interview. “But I think it’s an important part of my story, and I found it quite common among leftist Vermont Jews.”

In the interview, Balint recalled conversations with her father when she entered public life, when she was elected to the state senate in 2014.

“When I was first elected, my dad would call me and say a version of ‘Did they ever slash your tires? Did they spray paint your house?'” he said. – she says “And it’s a deep trauma, okay, so I’m not trying to minimize it, but it was like, ‘Hey, when you greet me with that every time, it’ is a bit difficult.'”

In her email the next day, she wrote: ‘I want to make sure I came across as deeply loving and respectful of my dad. He has been through terrible trauma in his life and I know it is a horrible and painful burden to bear. I would never want to look disrespectful to him. He was a wonderful father.

Vermont State Senator Becca Balint, who is seeking nomination by the Democratic Party to run for Vermont’s vacant U.S. House seat, speaks to voters in Colchester, Vermont on 24 July 2022. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)

She needn’t have worried: it was clear that she adored her father. Anyone who knows or has lived among the second generation of Holocaust survivors immediately understands the pull and pull Balint has felt throughout his life: the relentless need of surviving parents to protect their children can be both a balm and a irritant.

“He raised me with a strong sense of social justice and a healthy skepticism about the human condition,” Balint wrote of his father. “I use these things every day in my work.”

Peter Balint was born in Hungary and his family moved to Germany after the upheaval of the war. His family emigrated to the United States when he was 13. Becca Balint was born in a US Army hospital in Heidelberg, where he was stationed. She grew up in New York State and lived as an adult in Michigan and California before moving to Vermont in 1994.

Balint, who won his August 9 primary in resounding fashion, has made his father’s Holocaust trauma — but also his determination to get out of it — a centerpiece of his campaign.

“I know what can happen when we turn away from each other,” is how his signature TV ad begins, featuring photos of his grandfather, Leopold Balint. “My grandfather was murdered on a death march during the Holocaust. I grew up knowing that people can be misled when they are afraid.

The segment immediately leads to Balint, his wife and their two children singing the blessings of Hanukkah, a public affirmation of Jewish life.

Becca Balint’s victory in Vermont’s Democratic primary in August 2022 means she is likely to win the state’s single seat in the House of Representatives in November. (Balint campaign via JTA)

The ad also articulates a worldview directly at odds with his upbringing. “We felt the relief that comes when we stop turning away from each other and start meeting face to face,” she says in the ad. “I think we are often encouraged to exclude people.”

She might as well describe her father, who she says instilled a reluctance to engage with his neighbors. “I came late to the belief that neighbors can be a force for good in the world,” she wrote. in 2012, two years before running for office. “My dad has always been, and remains, hesitant to connect with neighbors.”

Balint’s good neighborhood is what underpins her reputation as a “peacemaker”, won as head of the state senate who managed to pass complex legislation with all-party support.

Balint, who holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and a master’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, described one particularly heartbreaking memory: his aunt’s teacher in Hungary, gathering information for authorities, asked the students if their parents were Jewish. . “These are wounds that will never heal,” she said.

She said her primary rival, Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, appeared in her ads to set a nativist tone, highlighting his birth on a farm in Vermont. “So many Vermonters during the primary came up to me and said, ‘This is not what we want to be,'” Balint said. “Look, I can’t talk about his campaign strategy. But the fact that he didn’t win, I think is very encouraging. Balint beat Gray 60%-37%.

U.S. Democratic House of Representatives hopeful Lt. Gov. Molly Gray speaks to voters in Middlesex, Vt., July 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)

Her ads also highlight her firsts, as Vermont’s first female Senate majority leader — and, if she wins, her first congresswoman — as well as her legislative victories, in the areas of reproductive health, health care and housing.

She was assisted by an endorsement from Jewish state senator Bernie Sanders. “He said, ‘I don’t just want to give you my endorsement, I want to help you get elected, I want to do this barnstorming tour through Vermont. And he said, “So first of all we have to feed the people. We have to feed people and we have to give them entertainment. So the band and the food were treated first before anything else.

Support rallies this summer have featured band The Western Terrestrials and mac and cheese.

Balint, installed on the left of the party, anticipated the decline of the small cadre among progressive Democrats who support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. She categorically does not support BDS.

“It has been incredibly painful for much of the Jewish community, especially around Burlington, when the city council was voting on BDS-related issues,” she said. “I’m on the left side of my party. I know it’s going to be a different dynamic. I think it’s counterproductive.

She met with the incumbent, Peter Welch, who won the Democratic nomination to replace Senator Patrick Leahy, who is retiring. She also spoke on the phone with Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Jewish Democrat from Maryland. Raskin, a constitutional expert, is on the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising on Capitol Hill, led by those repeating Donald Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election.

He’s “someone I shamelessly idolize,” she said of Raskin. “I spoke to him a few days ago on the phone. He said, ‘Becca, we have a democracy to save, that’s the job ahead of us.’ And I know that’s true too, and so I’m going to look to people like him who are very insightful about it to help me figure out how to navigate because I’m going to be a sponge.

According to the family history, Balint’s grandfather, on the death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen concentration camps in Austria a few weeks before liberation, stopped to help another sick marcher, knowing that this probably meant they would both be shot – as they were. . Balint never says it explicitly, but the choice between annihilation and doing the wrong thing is obvious to her. Balint said she craves “subtle fearlessness”.

When asked what that means, she explained, “No matter how you push me, no matter what you throw at me, at the end of the day, I know who I am,” she said. “So whatever you throw at me, it’s not going to stick.”