Tuesday, April 21, 2020, the Jewish world observed the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many of us, who are children of survivors, will pause to evaluate the losses we suffered collectively as a people, and individually. We will remember our relatives who perished in the tidal wave of hatred unleashed by the German Nazis. The “enlightened” Christian Europe incited 2000 years of Jew hatred in Europe that consumed the lives of 6 million innocent Jews, and millions of others died in crusades, pogroms, and blood libels. They were murdered because of the singular “sin” of being born as Jews.
Church-inspired hatred of Jews receded after the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Church must be given credit for changing the liturgy and teachings as it relates to Jews. Elements of the liberal Protestant denominations however, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church USA, to name the most visible, have substituted their anti-Jewish bias with a new form of anti-Semitism called anti-Israelism, attacking the collective Jew, which is the Jewish state of Israel instead of the individual Jew. Nathan Sharansky, a dissident in the former Soviet Union, and later, chairman of the Jewish Agency, coined the “triple D” to define antisemitism. Delegitimization of Israel, Demonization of Israel, and subjecting Israel to a Double Standard…
Antisemitism has never been eradicated, just as scapegoating continues to exist as a part of human nature, where the strong majority blames the ills of society on the weaker minority. That has been the European case vis-à-vis the Jews of Europe. Church inspired religious antisemitism gave way to racial antisemitism since the late eighteenth century. Germany and France were the sources of this new phase of hatred. In the early modern Europe, post Napoleon, with Jews finally receiving civil rights, at least in western Europe, envy of Jewish successes in all spheres of intellectual and scientific endeavors opened to them, along with the baptismal font … The latter was the only way Jews were able to gain positions of importance in West European societies – by conversion to Christianity.
In the more traditional and orthodox Jewish societies of Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe in general, where larger number of Jews lived, violence and blood libels against Jews were commonplace. There, the church and government tended to initiated pogroms, and were the main oppressors of Jews. Antisemitism came from above and seeped down to the largely ignorant masses. My family in Poland experienced the more vulgar prejudice, albeit, there were also Philo-Semitic Poles, and Russians.
I grew up with only one set of grandparents. On my father’s side, my grandfather, a famous and beloved teacher who taught Philosophy, languages (he spoke 9 languages), as well as music and Bible studies, found shelter at a home of a Polish-Catholic fellow professor. However, not wanting to endanger his friend’s family, he left, only to be swept up in a Nazi hunting operation (Aktion) sometime in 1942. He was murdered in his town of Ulanow, along with 1,500 other Jews, and buried in a common grave.
As with my grandfather, I never knew my aunts, uncles, or cousins who perished in October, 1942, at the Belzec Death Camp in southeastern Poland. As Poland was divided in 1939 by the Ribbentrop-Molotov (Soviet Union -Nazi Germany) agreement, my parents ended up on the German side of the border. The Russians arrived before the Germans to their town of Ulanow, and it was a Jewish officer in the Red Army who warned my mother to move east. He told her simply, “the Nazis will kill you.” My dad’s brothers and sisters refused to leave, fearing the Russians more than the Germans, and my dad, being the youngest of the children, didn’t want to leave his father. My mom prevailed, and with my brother (then a baby), they moved east. My dad risked his life by returning to fetch his father, but a German soldier at the border hit him hard and pushed him back. In retrospect, it saved his life.
Stalin, the Soviet dictator, ordered his troops to ship the Jews who crossed to the Russian side, into a labor camps in Siberia. Prior to that, while at a Ukrainian inn, the innkeeper and his mates were preparing to murder my family and take their possessions. My mom, a poor sleeper, saw them sharpening their long knives. She snuck out and ran amok toward a Russian (Soviet) military post and begged them to come and help. The Russians caught the Ukrainians red-handed, just before they could butcher the entire family, and shot them on the spot.
The Soviet policy was to deport the Polish Jews to labor camps in Siberia. There, in sub-zero temperatures, enduring constant hunger, and under the strict control by NKVD (predecessor of the KGB), my family barely survived. Nevertheless, against all odds, and hoping to be witnesses to the tragedy that befell the family, and the Jewish people, my parents, and two brothers survived. Just before the end of WWII, my family received permission to travel from Siberia to Uzbekistan, and from there, several more weeks and thousands of miles of train travel to the DP camps in Germany. Ultimately, the family ended up in the new State of Israel.
My parents personally experienced antisemitism in Europe, and even though they and so many others are gone, European antisemitism is as vicious as ever. A study by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University noted that coronavirus-inspired expressions “constitute forms of traditional Jew-hatred and of conspiracy theories. So far, these accusations appear to be promoted mainly by extreme rightists, the far left, and Islamists, each group according to its narrative and beliefs such as different conspiracy theories as well as the image of the Jew as a producer of diseases.”
The study suggested that “2019 witnessed a rise of 18% in major violent cases compared to 2018 – 456 cases in 2019 compared to 387 in 2018. Seven Jews and non-Jews were killed during anti-Semitic attacks, and a rise in most other manifestations, in most countries. At least 53 synagogues (12%) and 28 community centers and schools (6 percent) were attacked. An increase in life-endangering threats (47%) and in attacks on private properties (24%).” The study also noted that in the US, a new phenomenon is emerging, one with increased violent anti-Semitic manifestations, with shooting sprees and numerous casualties, inspired mainly by right-wing ideologies as well as by certain groups within the Black community, and the Nation of Islam in particular.
Tad Stahnke, director of the William and Sheila Konar International Educational Outreach, part of the William Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, summarized it well when he said: “Some were workers, some teachers, some neighbors. Many ordinary people enabled the Holocaust simply by doing their jobs. Some made the choice to help, while others decided to join in with the persecution, betraying Jewish friends and classmates. But what ‘fueled the Holocaust was antisemitism’ which didn’t end with the defeat of the Nazis, and ‘continues today’, affecting all of society.”
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