I walked into a concentration camp in Germany – and I walked out. A Jewish woman leaving a Nazi camp defies the odds and realities of millions of human beings.
“If you are done with the alt-right you filthy kike, then fuck off to Israel or just get into the oven. Problem solved.” A man wrote me those words, which I read before coming face to face with the crematorium at a Nazi concentration camp in Germany, the very ovens where bodies of millions of Jews were incinerated.
I found myself unexpectedly terrorized, shaken to my core — a horrific feeling that resurges upon hearing of or seeing the now near-daily occurrences of anti-Semitism and hate crimes. Never did I imagine visiting a concentration camp. Despite being born to a Jewish mother, I had zero desire and felt no family connection to the Holocaust. But there I found myself in Sachsenhausen: standing trapped within barbed wire and walls, fighting the most intense bone chill of my life, losing hope in humanity and in myself.
On the heels of hearing a German parliamentarian negate that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe or worldwide, a cab driver affirm that Jews were responsible for 9/11, and a former neo-Nazi quote an Austrian military officer in saying his radical political beliefs would have been welcome had they won the war, I felt paralyzed – staring into the ovens in search of answers, of lessons, of direction.
Still, I walked out through the gates of the concentration camp on my own two feet – because I could. Because I can. I retraced the fatal footsteps of 35,000 prisoners who were forced through that very same gate on a now infamous Death March. Even late in World War II, when it was clear that the Nazis were soon to fall to Allied powers, no one stopped to help the fragile souls in the streets of local towns.
Houses were eerily close to the camp, adjacent to its walls, lining the perimeter, second story windows above the tops of the stone barriers. Residents cannot say they did not know what was happening, smell the burning corpses, note the ash falling from the sky, hear the screams of death, see the human beings forcibly marched by their doors.
Along one border of Sachsenhausen lie former SS barracks. This very building where Nazi forces who tortured and murdered tens of thousands trained, restocked and strategized is now a training ground for modern day German state police.
“They don’t see any connection between what was and what is now,” my tour guide responded, when I asked whether anyone recognized or vocalized the troublesome nature of that fact.
I found her statement to be particularly terrifying. While the stories are far from identical, if we do not learn from history, it is doomed to repeat. I am ever reluctant to equate anything with the Holocaust and agree wholeheartedly with the statement by Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, in response to President Trump’s tweet asking if we were living in Nazi Germany. “No one should cavalierly draw analogies to Nazi Germany, especially the next leader of free world. It is not only a ridiculous comparison on the merits, but it also coarsens our discourse and diminishes the horror of the Holocaust. The President-elect should apologize for the remark.”
We now find ourselves alive at a dramatically different moment in time – though striking similarities to 1930s and 1940s Germany continue to plague me in the form of troubling questions.
The Holocaust did not begin with death camps and gas chambers. We say “never again,” but are we doing enough to combat the perilous rise in anti-Semitism, extremism, racism, nativism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, white supremacy, isolationism, the list goes on?
Our country denied entry to the St. Louis during World War II; the majority aboard the ship were returned to Europe, where 254 Jews died. A young girl named Anne Frank was refused a visa to the United States; she perished in Nazi concentration camps at the hands of the very perpetrators she was attempting to escape. Is issuing a rash Executive Order to close our borders, ban refugees, and suspend visas to those fleeing veritable religious, ethnic and political persecution and violence the answer?
On Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) in November of 1938, many thousands of synagogues, as well as Jewish homes, schools and businesses were damaged and destroyed throughout Germany. Gravestones in countless Jewish cemeteries were overturned and desecrated. Just yesterday, eleven bomb threats evacuated Jewish centers in cities across the country, while over one hundred headstones were toppled or damaged at a St. Louis Jewish cemetery, violently uprooting peaceful, prayerful places of rest. How does a country, a people, a government, law enforcement respond to this latest act of violence in a string of anti-Semitic hate crimes, which make up the largest portion of religiously-motivated attacks in the U.S. today?
“I was just following orders” was a claim made by many Nazis in attempt to defend the indefensible during the Nuremberg trials – and lies at the heart of an ongoing, widespread debate about what does or does not constitute a war crime. Are there not parallels between that and the President of the United States justifying his spreading of lies by saying, “I was given that information” by some other actor?
Government-ordered military deportation forces once rounded up millions of children and adults, permanently ripping apart families. The current administration is/was considering mobilizing as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, per an 11-page draft memo obtained by the Associated Press. Should any such action ever be put into motion, what is the best way to protect and defend the mental and physical safety of the most vulnerable, the minorities, the targeted in our own cities and towns – such that young people aren’t hiding terrified in attics?
The Nazis rose to power in 1933, as anti-Semitism surged. Anti-Jewish laws were enacted, death camps operationalized, professionals barred from service, work or practice, immigration restricted, synagogues destroyed, shops looted, students expelled from schools, masses forced into ghettos and deported, and six million murdered by 1945. Jews were far from the sole group persecuted: gay and lesbians, political opposition, Gypsies, physically or mentally disabled, communists, priests, the list goes on of other groups targeted because of race, action or belief.
“Fire up the ovens,” countless people have told me – in emails and across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. “You’re the oven-dodging kike who doesn’t belong in America but in Hell,” I heard, reinforcing the idea that I do not belong in the country in which I was born, in which I am a citizen, in which I have created a life.
Where do they want me? Want us? Where do we turn? Where do we go from here?
I have never been more acutely aware of the fact that I am Jewish than at this moment in history, with the newfound spike in anti-Semitism and hate crimes throughout the campaign season and since the election of the new president.
When asked about the impact of his campaign rhetoric on spiking anti-Semitism in a recent press conference, Trump somehow responded by congratulating himself on his election victory margins – and stated that he knew Jewish people, including his son, daughter, and grandchildren without addressing the topic at all. When asked about how his administration plans to respond to the undeniable surge in anti-Semitism at a subsequent press conference, he responded by calling the Jewish reporter’s question unfair, saying he hated it and found it insulting, and instructed him to sit down without offering any answer whatsoever – aside from blaming the press. Trump called himself the “least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” though refuses to outright condemn by name, show up alongside, step up to protect the targeted, or order an investigation of the spike in hatred, hate-fueled violence and hate crimes against Jews or other peoples; the President and Administration are deafeningly and dangerously silent on anti-Semitism.
An unprecedented 67 bomb threats have been phoned in to 56 Jewish centers across 27 states and one Canadian province since the start of the year has barely made headlines, yet invoked a paralyzing fear and terror in thousands of families, staff and community members of all faiths. A truck purposefully running over young Jews in Israel made the news cycle briefly. New Yorkers discovering and erasing swastikas from subway cars was a feel good story spotlighted for but a moment. A Chicago synagogue defaced with swastikas and a broken window is barely even searchable online.
How many swastikas is too many? One. How many slurs? How many hate crimes?
We ignore, deny, trivialize and understate horrors and attempt to normalize discrimination or hate speech until there is no possible alternative, until we find ourselves at the entrance of a death camp – metaphorically or in reality. We must remain vigilant and stay sensitized to both language and action, subtle and overt, specifics and generalizations, popular sentiment and government policies.
As a Jew, I should not have walked out of that camp alive. I should have died within its walls, succumbed to the most debilitating bone chill of my life, toiled until my body collapsed, withered away without adequate nutrition. But I did not. And I will not.
I said Kaddish for those who were murdered in death camps, for those who have been victims of crimes against humanity, for those who perish as the world watches, be it in Aleppo, in Chicago or in the Philippines. This is not solely about Jews, rather all of us, people of color, religious or ethnic minorities, the persecuted, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the needy, the victimized, the marginalized.
Who will be the next ones rounded up from their homes? Sent to camps? Targeted by hatred? Decimated in a genocide?
I want to be able to say that I would have been there to cross the bridge in Selma with Martin Luther King and John Lewis, that I would have been at the Salt March with Gandhi, that I would have been the one to harbor my Jewish neighbors when the Nazis came. So I stand, I speak, I march with my fellow females at the Women’s March, with my black and brown brothers and sisters in the streets of our cities, with my indigenous and native family at Standing Rock, with the immigrants and refugees who make our country what it is at the airports, with my LGBT community at Pride.
I am for myself and my Jewish people, as I am for others. Because this is our continuous struggle for justice – for our humanity, our dignity, our future.