The View From Here | Going Beyond Holocaust Awareness

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It’s a common thought in the United States, particularly among members of its Jewish community, that another Holocaust could never happen here. Paris? Sure. Munich? Absolutely. But Los Angeles, Chicago or Philadelphia? Absolutely not.

And yet it’s in California where a neo-Nazi candidate who wants to make American judenrein is polling atop Republicans and second to incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, in that state’s senatorial primary. It’s in Illinois where another neo-Nazi won his state’s Republican primary for governor. It’s right here in Pennsylvania where fringe neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups pamphlet small towns and larger exurbs during membership drives.

Hardly anyone gives the California and Illinois candidates much of a shot, of course — and rare is the person who would find in the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom to think and coalesce around even as abhorrent a viewpoint as racial and ethnic purity a harbinger of the United States’ downfall — but we ignore the prevalence of hate at our peril.


Adolf Hitler was a relatively unknown struggling artist and World War I veteran when in 1919 he first joined the organization that would become the Nazi Party. Just two decades later, the seeds of his Final Solution were beginning to germinate, and six years after that, 6 million Jews had been exterminated from the European continent.

But what distinguishes benign hate that has no potential to go anywhere from the dangerous variety that spreads like wildfire? That’s a question whose answer probably lies more in the secret depths of the cosmos known only to the Almighty, but I suppose that it has something to do with how the person who hates approaches the object of his hatred.

The secret of the Holocaust was the ability to divest an entire people of their humanity. In addition to being stripped of their clothes, robbed of their jewelry, plundered of even their hair, the victims of the Holocaust were separated from their names. They became numbers.

That’s why the work of such programs as Names, Not Numbers, Inc. — the Holocaust memorial film project created by Tova Rosenberg and supported by the Legacy Heritage Fund — is so important. I recently had the opportunity to assist two of our Jewish day schools, the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia and Caskey Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, whose eighth- and ninth-graders interviewed local Holocaust survivors and produced documentary films from their material. My role — teaching the students about the nuances of interviewing — was miniscule, but I was honored to help.

At a viewing last month of the Mesivta group’s final product, I kept coming back to the question of how another Holocaust could be prevented if it is so very easy for humankind to be susceptible to the kind of hatred that entranced almost all of Germany. Part of the solution is exactly what the students at Mesivta and Torah Academy are doing: returning the humanity that had been robbed from the 6 million who perished, as well as those who made it out of the hell alive.

Toward the end of the Mesivta video, the students and their subjects are asked about a prevailing message in their survival. Many keep coming back to the theme of emunah, of faith. That speaks to the idea that God, despite all the horrors that have befallen the Jewish people, will preserve the remnants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

As a rabbi, I, of course, agree with that conclusion. But I also have faith that so long as we choose to celebrate the humanity in others — and encourage other human beings to do the same — the hope of a better tomorrow will gradually become the promise of a better world.

Judging by what’s going on around the country, our battle isn’t necessarily against anti-Semitism, which unfortunately exists on both the right and the left, among centrists as well as political agnostics. And our mission shouldn’t just be centered on Holocaust awareness.

Our calling as members of the Jewish community is instead to be living examples of what it means to place our shared humanity above the externalities that so often define people. So long as we have children like those who produced the Names, Not Numbers videos, we’re off to a good start.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Bravo Mesivta and Torah Academy. Such insight from children of that impressionable age. I agree, that this should be a politicized as right and left, but more of unity and understanding of all.

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