Usually, I only remember after the fact and feel guilty that I missed my chance to mark Yom HaShoah, the modern Jewish and Israeli holiday of Holocaust Remembrance Day. That makes sense inasmuch as I am neither Jewish nor Israeli.
On the other hand, I often say that my German minor was effectively a Holocaust studies minor, three semesters of critical analysis of original contemporary sources and historical analysis of twentieth century German history. We looked at the progressivism of the Weimar Republic and the collapse of the economy and the republic in the decades that led to the rise of Hitler. We watched the propaganda films of the Third Reich, read detailed accounts in the original German of the horrors of the concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen near Munich, which I visited in 2011, and equally detailed accounts of the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification after the war.
This year is different. I’ve been thinking almost daily for weeks about the Holocaust and the many signs and events that led to it, and how critical it is that we remember them this year, of all years, on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Perhaps most wrenching for me has been recalling the children of Theresienstadt.
The name Theresienstadt popped into my mind during one of Scott Simon’s weekly editorials on NPR’s Weekend Edition, in which he spoke about artwork by children who had been held in DHS tent cities, without their parents, without medical care, without legal representation, in facilities that even faith leaders and our U.S. Senators and Congresspeople were denied access to bear witness to. Simon was filled with hope and optimism for these children’s futures, but all I could think of was the artwork of children in the “model” ghetto of Theresienstadt.
Avant-garde artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who I assume was sent to Theresienstadt for being a so-called “degenerate” artist in the groundbreaking 1930s Bauhaus movement, as well as being Jewish, held art classes for detained children to sustain their resilience against the horrors of the Holocaust unfolding all around them. Dicker-Brandeis hid suitcases containing thousands of children’s drawings and paintings, hid them just before she and the children were transported to Auschwitz to die, hid those suitcases so that we could bear witness to the tragedy of their stolen childhoods today.
So, it wasn’t with hope that I heard Scott Simon say of the artwork of the detained children of Honduras, Guatemala and San Salvador,
When Tornillo [Detention Center] began to be dismantled in January, workers started to get rid of the artwork. But Father Rafael Garcia from El Paso’s Sacred Heart Parish, who had said mass at the camp, didn’t want the art of the children to be thrown away and forgotten.
“What came through in the art was the strong spirit of these young men and women,” he told us, “who, even under those conditions, were still inspired to do something beautiful.”Opinion: A Showcase Of ‘Uncaged Art’ By Children Once Detained | NPR
As he assembled the exhibition, had Father Garcia been remembering, as I was, the Catholic priests and other clergy and lay people of faith who smuggled as many children as they could out of Nazi territory? Had he also been remembering the clergy and others who turned away, as if it weren’t happening?
It has been weighing heavily on my mind, too, that the tragedy of Theresienstadt might have been far greater, if not for the many heroes who saw it coming.
In late 1938 and early 1939, exactly eighty years ago, a broad European coalition of Jews and Gentiles responded to the violent horror of Kristallnacht by pulling off a massive humanitarian project called the Kindertransport. Over the course of several months, some 10,000 unaccompanied minor children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Danzig were put on trains, planes and boats and brought to Great Britain. They were scattered in homes throughout the English countryside, or sent abroad to Canada. These 10,000 souls would almost certainly have died in the Holocaust that followed, and many lost entire families—parents, aunts, uncles, adult cousins and grandparents—to the Nazi regime and the war to defeat them.
As the 80th anniversary of that massive lifesaving endeavor is being celebrated in Europe, here in the United States we are not acting with compassion for the thousands of children fleeing almost certain death by crossing the border into our country. Exactly eighty years after the Kindertransport, we are deporting an 11-year-old alone back to El Salvador because her family, the same family who braved all the dangers of the journey to El Norte, was misinformed about whether she was supposed to accompany the rest of her family to their collective asylum hearing. It appears that the court may have made a mistake, but they aren’t reversing the ruling.
I am not Jewish but Unitarian Universalist, and as the Kindertransport was ending in 1939, my own faith family was ramping up its own humanitarian campaign. American Unitarian minister Rev. Waitstill and his wife Martha Sharp arrived in Prague in 1939, tasked with establishing a network to smuggle out Unitarians, Jews, intellectuals and other dissidents, including hundreds of children. Rev. Waitstill and Martha arrived just weeks before Hitler’s troops occupied the city, and Gestapo harassment forced them to leave just six months later, but they soon returned to work throughout the war in Portugal and France, evacuating refugees to the United States and Latin America.
Though I am no longer active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, it has been heartening to see the organization Rev. Waitstill and Martha started, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, as well as Unitarian, Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy, taking mission after mission to the U.S.-Mexican border to stand witness, to protest, to bring humanitarian aid to the families stranded there.
Churches, temples and synagogues across the country are hosting refugee families and providing financial, moral and legal support to asylum seekers and the undocumented across the country. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have joined the resurgent New Sanctuary Coalition movement, sheltering immigrants and asylum seekers from detention, abuse and unlawful or unnecessary deportation across the country. The ACLU, Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center, CAIR chapters, HIAS and other legal nonprofits are standing up for our Black, Latino, immigrant, asylee, refugee, LGBT, nonbinary and disabled neighbors in the courts, and putting pressure on city, state and national legislators to enshrine their protection in law.
Let us honor those heroes, but let us also remember that so much more could have been done in the 1930s and 1940s. Anne Franks’ father was denied a visa to immigrate to the United States, desperately seeking for his family what we would now call refugee or asylum status. In 1939, the USS St Louis arrived on, first, the shores of Cuba, and then in our own waters, where the United States turned away its 937 passengers, mostly Jewish, seeking what we would now call refugee or asylum status. Forced to return to Europe, over 250 Jews – almost a quarter of the passengers of the St. Louis – were deprived of their livelihoods, forced into hiding, sent to concentration camps, starved, tortured, experimented on and murdered.
The entire system of asylum and refugee protection that exists today, in the United States and around the world, was designed to save the next St. Louis, to make sure that never again would people be trapped, as the Jews, Roma, queers, political dissidents and others were, in countries where they faced death for being who they are. What’s happening now on the southern border of the United States, and to Syrians and Iraqis in Turkey and Jordan, and Somalis in Kenya, and Rohingya in Bangladesh, and Yemenis in their own country, and all the 68 million displaced people and refugees around the world, is no less than a repeat of exactly what we swore would happen “never again.”
When a justice seeker like Ravi Ragbir faces deportation for his work defending the vulnerable, when a special educator like Bahia Amawi is fired for refusing to give up her right to boycott Israel, when Yemeni mother Shaima Swileh is prevented because of her country of origin from seeing her two-year-old son before he becomes comatose and dies, when white supremacist anti-Semites with disturbingly similar motivations enter synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway and a mosque in New Zealand to mow down worshippers, including Holocaust survivors, we must speak out.
When Twitter can’t distinguish Nazis from Republican elected officials, when even U.S. citizens are being detained for the color of their skin, when the so-called Leader of the Free World continues to insist that there “very fine people on both sides” of the Nazi rally that killed anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, when Nazis are burning down Black churches, mosques and a civil rights center across the country, we must speak out.
We can’t afford to wait for another Kristallnacht, when there are more acts of violence every week in this country, when traumatized populations are on hunger strike in the abusive, too often deadly forced labor and concentration camps we’ve established in the United States and Mexico as part of a deliberately broken immigration system. We must respond to the signs now, while we the people still have that power, before we have our own Reichstag fire that allows Republicans to steal even more of our rights, even more of our moral integrity.
I am generally reluctant to draw parallels to the Holocaust. I know Godwin’s law as well as any Millennial: he who invokes the Nazis first, loses the argument. But even Mike Godwin himself agrees that sometimes comparisons to the Nazis are warranted:
My own instincts as a former reporter, as well as a lawyer, is to make sure you understand everything as much as you can before you go public. I wrote about using Nazi comparisons in The Washington Post well before it was believed the election would turn out as it did, and that certain factions in American culture would feel empowered by it. What I wrote was, if you’re reading history before a comparison to Hitler, I’m for that.Creator of Godwin’s Law explains why some Nazi comparisons don’t break his rule | Washington Post
I spent several semesters reading that history, including eyewitness accounts in the original German, studying literature and film from and about that time. I can’t but be disturbed by what I see unfolding around me every day of the Trump Administration, and it’s not just rhetorical.
Neo-Nazis and the alt-right want to be associated with Hitler, and consider themselves aligned with the worst of the Trump Administration’s abuses. They’re proud of what he’s doing. And when self-proclaimed Nazis are lauding human rights abuses like these, I feel obliged to point out the historical parallels to the rise of fascism.
This Yom HaShoah, I’m remembering the horrors of the Holocaust every day. Those who do not remember history, are doomed to repeat it. We must remember our history now, and look for where we can each act to stop these atrocities now.