Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day established by a U.N. General Assembly resolution in 2005 commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau 76 years ago. It is a somber day, a day of self-reflection and remembrance of all those who perished. The Holocaust has a special significance in my own journey to my Jewish identity.
Growing up in St. Louis during the 1950s, I was not particularly aware of what the previous two decades had wrought on the Jewish people. My parents, while identifying as Jewish, were very secular in just about every way. My father came to this country from a shtetl just outside Lodz, Poland. He left Poland with his family in 1903 when he was 3 years old but didn’t arrive in this country until he was 6 because of complications with immigration authorities relating to a physical disability he had. He was the youngest of eight children. My mother’s family came from the area now known as Lithuania. Her family left Eastern Europe around 1903 and spent a few years in Whitechapel in London before coming to the U.S. She was born in 1908 in the U.S. and was one of seven children. Both grew up in kosher Orthodox Jewish homes.
By 1930s standards, my parents were older when they got married; he was 34 and she was 26. They decided not to keep kosher nor pursue a religious life. They wanted to assimilate. Recently, it has occurred to me that the reason both families left Eastern Europe around the same time in 1903 may have been prompted by the Pogrom of Kishinev of 1903, a particularly vicious anti-Jewish riot in the city of Kishinev, Moldova, that was widely publicized at the time and that motivated a large-scale fundraising and assisted emigration effort by American Jews to help Jews in Eastern Europe leave that part of the world.
When I was of sufficient age, I vaguely remember going to Sunday school at a Reform temple. My father drove me there every Sunday morning. I recall seeing an Israeli flag on display at the temple, but not much else. That was the extent of my religious upbringing as a child. I have no memory of ever going to services with my parents. Every Friday night it was chicken soup and chicken as the main course, a vestige of their family gatherings when they were young. But no lighting of candles, no prayers and certainly no recognition of the importance of the Sabbath.
When I was 11 years old, we moved from the inner city to a suburb, University City, just west of the city limits (much as Brookline is located relative to Boston). The suburb was predominantly Jewish, and so, after spending a few weeks at my new school, I found myself alone after school because most of my newfound friends were in Hebrew school. I came home and asked my parents if I, too, could go to Hebrew school. They were very surprised and pleased that I had an interest, and so they enrolled me in what turned out to be a Conservative/Orthodox synagogue school—an odd placement given I had no previous religious experience.
My first year was spent in a kindergarten class learning how to read Hebrew. The second year I was assigned to a bar mitzvah class. I have no recollection of learning anything in those two years other than how to pronounce printed Hebrew words. The rabbi teaching the second-year class was also the cantor, and he gave me a recording of my Haftarah reading, which I replayed on my old record player ad nauseum until I memorized it. Following the service, my Great-Aunt Jenny told me that while she didn’t know the trope, my Hebrew was perfect, so at least I did that right.
In subsequent years, I attended an occasional Shabbat or High Holiday service, always feeling as though I did not belong. From time to time, I’d be invited to someone’s house for a Sabbath meal or a Passover seder and feel like an outsider. There was nothing that made me feel particularly Jewish.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s when my perspective began to change. I happened to see a very graphic documentary on television about the Holocaust. While I previously had general discussions with people about the Holocaust, the images on the screen were deeply disturbing because it suddenly made it seem so personal. I felt a deep existential dread realizing that some of the people who died may have been related to me, and, even worse, that there but for the grace of God (and my parents’ families fortuitously coming to this country much earlier) go I.
With greater awareness of what had happened, I began to wonder—what made ordinary people become so irrationally hateful that they could participate in such heinous crimes against humanity, the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt described in her seminal work after witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961?
I became more obsessed with looking for an explanation. And as I learned more, the less I understood. I realized that saying 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust did not have the same emotional impact as hearing individual stories about Jews who were singled out for persecution and, in an overwhelming number of cases, certain death. These stories make clear that anyone can be made terribly vulnerable when people turn against you, not because of something you’ve done, but because of who you are. The brave individuals who risked their lives to do what they could to protect and save Jews during the war make up an even more remarkable part of the story.
I know too well that other genocides have occurred, but there has never been a clear explanation of why people can turn so viciously homicidal. There were the Milgram experiments at Yale University. These social psychology experiments measured the degree of willingness of participants of various ages and backgrounds to obey an authority figure instructing them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience, seemingly supporting Hannah Arendt’s theory. So perhaps that is part of the explanation.
Thus, until recently, I was never completely able to adequately understand the nature of antisemitism, but I began to become more and more convinced that there was no single explanation. And why were Jews fleeing Europe mostly turned away from sanctuary by the nations of the world only to face certain death? That’s when it became clear to me that the Jewish State of Israel was ever more important to the survival of the Jewish people. No matter what the future may hold, as long as the Jewish state exists, there will be a refuge for Jews escaping danger. And so I found my Jewish identity around the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state and the belief in “never again.” I took back-to-back trips to Israel in 1982 and 1983, which reinforced my determination to support the Jewish state. Each was a different trip with entirely different experiences, but with the same result.
But could the Holocaust happen again? There have been various opinions offered believing it could not happen again. Some suggest that the confluence of events following World War I brought about the perfect storm and these circumstances were unlikely to repeat themselves. But some who have followed the history of antisemitism have said it is always there waiting to be unleashed when circumstances allow it. Antisemitism has existed for centuries. My parents most likely grew up in this country because of the antisemitism raging in eastern Europe at the time of the Pogrom of Kishinev of 1903.
I’ve recently heard and read about people asking why some Jews can’t stop talking about the Holocaust. Why not move on? After all, it happened over 75 years ago. In the spring of 2017, my wife and I attended a photographic exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibit included pictures taken by Henryk Ross, a Polish Jewish photojournalist confined in the Lodz ghetto in 1940 and put to work by the Nazi regime to take photographs of the residents for Jewish identity cards, as well as to record images that were used by the Nazis to promote the efficiency of the ghetto’s work force. Ross, however, also surreptitiously took pictures to document the harsh realities of life in that ghetto, and then buried the negatives. He was one of only 877 recorded survivors of the Lodz ghetto of the more than 160,000 who populated that place during the war.
After the war, while some of the negatives had been permanently damaged by the elements, Ross was able to retrieve many. It was some of these photographs that were being exhibited at the MFA. As I looked at the images, I found myself scrutinizing the faces of the people to see if any had a resemblance to my father’s family who dwelled in the area some 40 years earlier. In an irrational way, I was looking for my father, whose image I expected might magically appear among the images of those hapless souls, as if to nullify my very existence. It is that existential dread that many Jews live with, and why we cannot stop thinking about nor can we forget the Holocaust.
So much has been written and recorded about the Holocaust it is surprising that anyone could ever forget it. There are many other views that by controlling messaging through mass media with false information, people can be manipulated into believing anything. A free press is a remedy for that, so the argument goes. But with all the discussion about the Holocaust, there has never been anything said or done to comfort me from the thought of it never happening again, especially with recent events demonstrating how vulnerable we can be.
In the last four years, I have witnessed in this country how people who are otherwise rational can be swayed into believing irrational and delusional ideas despite our free press. A large swath of people can be convinced of the most incredulous ideas that defy logic and reality itself by those who control messaging through media and repeat lies and add falsehoods to partial truth.
Seeing various members of the mob descending on the Capitol building on Jan. 6 with horrifying symbols of antisemitism demonstrates the reality of hate, including virulent antisemitism right here and now in America. As Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna explains in his Jan. 11, 2021, article, “The Symbols of Antisemitism in the Capitol Riot,” calls to exterminate Jews are common in far-right and white nationalist circles. The use of the horrifying images seen among the rioters (such as “Camp Auschwitz” emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, and under it the phrase “work brings freedom,” an English translation of the Auschwitz concentration camp motto “Arbeit macht frei,” and the abbreviated message “6MWE,” meaning 6 million wasn’t enough), “demonstrate that some of those who traveled to Washington to support President Donald Trump were engaged in much more than just a doomed effort to maintain their hero in power.…As their writings make clear…some among them also hoped to trigger…a government takeover and race war, that in its most extreme form, would exterminate Jews.”
The professor points out that QAnon supporters traffic in conspiracies, some of which use antisemitic imagery, as well as conspiracies that attack Jewish billionaire philanthropist and investor George Soros, whom they portray as the primary figure shaping and controlling world events. Sarna also references the Proud Boys, who also traffic in antisemitism, reporting that Proud Boys leader Kyle Chapman recently promised to “confront the Zionist criminals who wish to destroy our civilization.” Finally, the professor describes the antisemitic symbolism of the hangman gallows on display (a reference to an antisemitic dystopian novel by William Luther Pierce) outside the Capitol building. And then there is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spread conspiracies, including the preposterous conspiracy that the California wildfires were caused by Jewish space lasers.
Several years after that fateful experience of watching the Holocaust documentary and my subsequent trips to Israel, I married a woman who grew up in a very traditional Jewish home, where Zionism was a central tenet of her family’s Jewish life while growing up and continues to be a source of strong commitment for her. Her family honored the Sabbath every Friday night, lighting the Shabbat candles and saying the kiddush, and observing the various Jewish holidays throughout the year. From time to time, I accompany my wife to services, although I still can’t say it’s one of my favorite activities. We attempted to instill a sense of Jewish identity in our children, sending them to Hebrew school, Jewish overnight summer camp and several trips to Israel, with some success. I stand proud of my Jewish heritage and consider it a great privilege to have been born and raised in the United States of America.
But as a Jew, it is the events over the last four years that evoke the existential dread that some of us now feel and that invokes images of the Holocaust. It is incumbent upon all of us to remain vigilant in fighting the forces that have brought such chaos to our country and have undermined our most fundamental democratic values. As the philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
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