April 27, 2018
Truthfully? I don’t remember when I first heard the word “Holocaust.” In the 1940s I went to Bala Cynwyd Junior High and then Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where out of 1500 students, less than 20 were Jews. In my senior year, Israel declared its independence. There was a discussion about it in Miss Lamb’s history class. As I remember, the class was about evenly divided on whether or not Israel as a State was legitimate. I do not remember any mention, much less discussion of the Holocaust.
Perhaps it came into my consciousness gradually. Perhaps it was the first viewing of the newsreels in movie theaters of the concentration camps and the gaunt, ghostly figures of the survivors. In 1950 we moved to Cleveland and became active members of the Jewish Community. It was there that I remember hearing the stories. It is where we began to meet the survivors.
I remember absorbing the statistics. Naked, unsentimental, stark statistics. Six Million dead—mostly Jews. Eighty two percent of our scholars, teachers, rabbis—gone. One third of our people—gone. This reality is still hard to absorb.
We learned slowly. Of people like Rabbi Stephen Wise who learned of the Holocaust while it was still going on in the 1940s. Of the Jewish delegation he led to the White House to plead with Roosevelt to have American bombers bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. We heard of the president’s response—that he had enough problems with his congress as it was and that they could not afford to divert the planes and God forbid one got shot down on that mission and would these Jews prefer to have the Nazis marching down Fifth Avenue in New York?
We learned of the resistance in the State Department to offering any Jews asylum in the U.S. And we learned of the St. Louis, being turned away from the port of New York and sent back to Germany.
Slowly. In my 20s the stories and the films and then the testimonies came slowly. It seeped into our consciences. It was hard to grasp the reality. It still is. The testimony is still there. The Holocaust Center here in Orlando and the larger one in Washington, D.C., still tell the stark story to thousands every year. And the statistics show we lose an average of 13 survivors every day.
If your family is not that involved in community, if you do not have the means to have your children or grandchildren join the March of the Living, are you going to remember? Are they going to be even aware?
Since the Holocaust there has been Rwanda, the terror in Burma, half a million dead in Syria. The world is not a whole lot safer than it was when we dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the same philosophies that created the Holocaust are alive and well in the world today.
You saw the marchers in Charlottesville. You heard their chants. You saw the muted response from the White House. You read of the governments in Eastern Europe becoming more isolationist, more “unwelcoming.” The cultural shakeup of the world’s population does have a jarring effect on people. Specifically when thousands of people who dress, speak and worship differently descend on your ancient culture.
In the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the U.S. was open to immigration. The Lady with the Lamp told the world “Give me your tired, your poor—your huddled masses yearning to be free...”
And we integrated them—us—into the amalgam that is America. That is our secret, our greatness. In Europe? The immigrants—most from Muslim countries, are kept separate, isolated. Well, we were too when we first came. But we Jews, thrust from our native countries could not wait to “assimilate”—to become Americans. Our grandparents or parents spoke Yiddish in the home and English on the street. I have written before that my grandmother, an immigrant from Russia, went to school at the age of 63 to learn to read and write English.
But: We didn’t forget. We learned the stories of Jews forbidden to attend regular schools. Of living in “shtetls”—really ghettos throughout Europe. Heroes like Jabotinsky traveled through Eastern Europe in the 1920s, warning Jews of what was to come—and that was before Hitler.
He saw the Jew hatred, knew that it was only a matter of time. He was mostly ignored. Such a thing could not happen. It did. And now, here in the United States, a whole new generation is hardly aware of the Holocaust. Certainly not aware of how it came about. How the Nazis were able to become powerful.
Not aware that in many places in Poland and Russia and the Ukraine and Lithuania, the people did not wait for the Nazis and began killing Jews before they were invaded. That even today the concept of the “Other” is alive and well here in our land.
“Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it.”