Opinion | Lessons From the Past

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Museum of Jewish Heritage
Museum of Jewish Heritage (Google Maps screenshot)

By David Broida

As an American Jew whose family suffered in the Holocaust, I am especially wary of the growing hatred we see in the United States today. We would do well to remember that the Holocaust started not at Auschwitz but in the pervasive bigotry in words and deed in German society that was fueled by the Nazi government starting as soon as it took office in 1933.

Growing up in America in the late 1940s and 1950s, far from the devastation European Jews experienced, in my childhood and in our family the Holocaust nevertheless felt very present. My parents’ shelves were lined with books that chronicled the loss of the 6 million Jews. We didn’t need to have read Sinclair Lewis to know the phrase “Don’t think it can’t happen here.” My mother articulated it often, and in those words. And she created a family tree in which the name of every victim of the Nazis was followed by the initials PIH, for perished in the Holocaust.

Over the years of my childhood, my mother shared many family stories with me. Her mother’s two aunts who remained behind in Ejishok, Lithuania, when the rest of the family emigrated to America — they were murdered in the first days of September 1941, when the Germans invaded Lithuania. This is well-documented by the renowned historian Yaffa Eliach in her writing about Ejishok, where she and her family lived as well.

A cousin, age 18, made it to America in 1938, but he could not raise the funds to rescue his parents and siblings, and by then getting out of Europe was nearly impossible anyway. They perished in the Holocaust. A few relatives did survive, some hidden by a Czech farmer, who was later honored as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem.

My grandfather came to America in 1904, and when he returned to Europe in 1919 and 1930, he brought many relatives back with him. But not all. Those who remained in Dynov, his shtetl in Galicia, were rounded up in September 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, and like our Litvak relatives, murdered then and there. The grand synagogue in Dynov was burned to the ground.

My wife’s family, from Vienna, faced the same peril. Some survived by hiding somewhat like Anne Frank, but in Brussels, not Amsterdam, but others were not so fortunate. My wife’s uncle made it to Crete, and translated from German to English for the British troops, but when Crete was overrun by the Germans, he was captured and executed. Her uncle and two of her great-aunts were caught by the Gestapo in Belgium and sent east to concentration camps and their deaths. To escape from Vienna after Anschluss of March, 1938, my father-in-law was aided in the line to seek a visa by a “good German,” a policeman who seeing him turned away every morning, took pity on him and ushered his way into the line where he could obtain the necessary visas for himself and his wife to Zurich. From there, to America in 1940, where family was waiting.

My interest in the Holocaust has never wavered, and I have read many books on the subject. When I learned of the new exhibit on Auschwitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, I made plans to visit.

My recent visit left me very disturbed, but not so much by the artifacts of the killing factory —the electrified barbed wire, the Zyklon B, etc. — but rather by the evidence of the desire for racial purity, real or imagined, that lay behind the killing. I will call it Aryan supremacy. In our country, America, in the 21st century, we have seen the rise of a white supremacist movement. The connection could not be more stark or clear.

The exhibit included many documents, letters and photographs claiming Aryan racial superiority. In one frame, three photos of Aryan children were set on one side, three of Jewish children on the other, with the text calling to include the first three in Germany, and to exclude the others.

I am very uncomfortable with any comparisons to the Holocaust. It was a singular crime against the Jewish people. In addition, no one here today is proposing gas chambers for a perceived enemy. Nevertheless, the Holocaust did not start with poison gas and guns. Rather, it started with words and pictures. And today, in our country, we have seen a rise in the display, on social media and at public rallies, of the hatred of perceived racially inferior groups in words and pictures.

The government ban on immigrants from Muslim nations is not aimed at the religion of Islam, nor is Trump’s desire to build a wall to keep out Central Americans from seeking refuge here based on their religion or nation of origin. Rather, it’s based on a perceived notion of white superiority, of white racial purity. And what I saw in words and pictures at the Museum’s Auschwitz exhibit, I unfortunately observe right here in the United States of America in the year 2019.

Equally disturbing is the president of the United States giving sanction and support to the white supremacists, finding “good people” in Charlottesville, Virginia, who are shouting, “Jew will not replace us” and other racist slogans steeped in the idea of racial purity. His reference to “shithole” nations of Haiti and sub-Saharan African countries is another example of the president’s racist views, because again, his views are based on nothing more than the idea of white supremacy and imagined racial purity.

Our country has experienced racial hatred before, starting with the genocidal war waged on the Cherokee, Lakota Sioux, Apache and all the other tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over 20,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden in 1939 in support of German racial policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. The anti-immigration act of 1924 was aimed specifically at southern and eastern European countries and more specifically at their Jewish residents. And of course our history of slavery and Jim Crow laws, as much or more than anything else, reflects a sense of racial superiority by much of the ruling white American population.

Just as we have confronted racial hatred and the issue of imagined racial superiority in the past, we must do so now. We must now powerfully oppose racists who use public platforms, such as at Charlottesville, and we must oppose at the ballot box politicians who espouse racist views. We must work to elect leaders who believe that all men and women are created equal. We need to make sure that it can’t happen here, to Jews or to anyone else.

David Broida is co-founder of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, a federally registered PAC (Political Action Committee).

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