As a Holocaust survivor, I spend a great deal of my time speaking to audiences about my experiences. I do this because if we want "Never Again" to be a reality, then people need to learn about the Nazi concentration camps. They need to know what should never happen again, and they need to know about the slow process that took my world from secure to terrifying.
Things got bad for us gradually. I was living a normal, safe life as a 15-year-old boy in Hungary when our school had an assembly and a speaker from the Hungarian fascist party came to address us. He was a powerful speaker: he was passionate, he was persuasive, and unlike many assembly speakers, he got everyone's attention. But as I listened to him, a terror grew inside me that I had never known before. The man was saying that all of our problems are due to the Jews. He built a well-constructed argument based on this ridiculous premise, culminating in what, for him, was the obvious conclusion: if we get rid of the Jews, we get rid of our problems.
Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) writes in his Holocaust novel, Beatrice and Virgil, about the moment when "it all started": "In that moment the world shattered like a pane of glass, so that everything looked exactly as it had earlier, and yet was different, now clear and newly sharp with menace." For me, it all started in that assembly hall as the speaker shouted, and everyone else was silent.
My daily routine didn't change after the assembly. I continued to go to school, to play soccer, to eat with my family. Then late one night a few months later, a literal pane of glass shattered when a brick was thrown through our living room window. The next day we continued on, more fearful than before, but still in relative normality until the next blow: wholesalers would not sell my father the goods he needed to stock his store. From there, the pace of my family's descent increased: the yellow star, a ban from school, eviction from our home, the train, Auschwitz, separation, starvation, death. In the end everything happened quickly. But it all began deceptively slowly.
"The cry of 'Never Again' is not being heeded if we wait to act until it is already happening again."
I share this story here not for the benefit of the supporters of the two leading Republican candidates, either of whom could lead this country into a very dangerous era of racism and hatred, a time when being a Muslim or a Mexican--or whoever the next target group is--means that you can be berated, mistreated and excluded. I am speaking to everyone else. It is everyone else who can lead us forward as a country of compassion and equality. I want the Democrats, the Independents and the moderate Republicans to listen. Because if we all take part in the political process, if we all speak out, if we all vote, then these few months can be an aberration in our history rather then the beginning of a disaster.
It is the silent, the inactive, who allow tyrants to have their way. Looking back, I am not really surprised that a hateful leader came to my school and spouted racist dogma. What shocks me now is the complicity of my teachers. How is it possible that they did not stand up and shout the speaker down? That they did not insist that he leave the building? That, afterward, they did not show concern and care to those of us who had been attacked? The speaker did not have official power over the school or our teachers, yet he was allowed to harm us.
It is not the rise of Hitler that should shock us. What is amazing is how millions of ordinary citizens supported him, and how most of Hitler's opponents became so silent, so quickly. We must fear that we could become those ordinary citizens and those whose opposition is silent. In America today we still have the power to resist with impunity and without great sacrifice - we just have to exercise our freedom of speech and our right to vote.
We are past the moment when the glass shattered, the time when "it all started." Perhaps it was when one candidate called Mexicans rapists and another candidate supported him, and they both continued to gain momentum. Perhaps it was when both candidates said they would only harbor Christian refugees escaping war and persecution. Perhaps it was when opponents were met with physical assault, and the candidate encouraged rather than disavowed that violence. We can each pick our exact moment, but it has clearly already happened. And as we watch the unacceptable come to be viewed by many as acceptable, we stand open-mouthed at the wonder of the display as the triumph of the tyrant happens on our watch.
So what can we do? Here's what I wish had happened when I was wearing the yellow star and someone pushed me. I wish that everyone on the street had come running to my aid, that old women had shaken their fingers at my assailant, and that young men had told him to have some decency. When the brick was thrown through my window, I wish that all of our neighbors who heard the crash had rushed out of their homes and caught the thug who threw it, and then made him fix our window. At the first racist rant at that assembly, I wish that my Christian and Jewish friends, with the encouragement of our teachers, had stood up together in outraged opposition, while the head of the school escorted the shamed speaker out of the building.
The cry of "Never Again" is not being heeded if we wait to act until it is already happening again. We must stop being dumbfounded, amazed, or entertained by what is taking place. We must have the courage to respond to the bullying of others with intervention and immediate support for the victims. We must have opposition at political rallies, not in dozens, but in thousands, standing strong in non-violent determination. We must vote. We must join together to form the thundering cry of opposition I so desperately needed to hear in that assembly hall when I was fifteen.
When my family and I were taken from our home in 1944, one of my schoolteachers accompanied the Hungarian soldiers, helping them to identify the Jews in our town. He stood in our living room as we each gathered the little we were allowed to take with us. Minutes later, as we were marched through the street, we passed the house of another of my teachers. Most of the townspeople watched our humiliation from behind curtain lace. But this man, braver and more compassionate than the rest, stood with his wife on their front porch, and as we passed he met our eyes and tipped his hat in a courageous show of respect.
These two teachers have stayed in my mind ever since: one on the wrong side of history, the other on the right side. But the righteous teacher was too late.
(Gene Klein wrote this blog with his daughter, Dr. Jill Klein, author of We Got the Water: Tracing My Family's Path through Auschwitz.)