During my career as a video and documentary writer and producer in the 1990s, I was asked to record the oral histories of the men and women in my Cincinnati, Ohio community who had survived the Holocaust. Over the course of 2 1/2 years, I gathered nearly 40 such survivor testimonials — all of which are now online at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.
I have been thinking a lot of late about the searing accounts they shared. The details of their stories varied. All were gut-wrenching to hear. Some were in forced labor and death camps. Some fought back as partisans in the forests of Eastern Europe throughout the war. Some were hidden by righteous non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from certain extermination. But noxious threads of horrific terror and atrocious acts of inhumanity were commonly woven throughout the telling of each survivor’s unimaginable tales.
There was one other common theme that was almost universally expressed when I asked each of them, “What is the greatest lesson you learned from what you had to endure?” They each responded in their own ways, but I will paraphrase the whole of what they told me here: “The Holocaust did not start with ghettoes, mass shootings, people packed into cattle cars, and starved and tortured to death in concentration camps. It began with hate. Hate only because we were Jews. So by the time the killing machines were running at peak efficiency, it was too late. So the lesson is this: The time to have acted was when the first spark of hate became visible. The time to rise up was then. Tell everyone you know, that they must act and push back against hatred, bigotry and racism at the time when it first arises. Otherwise, society will be doomed.”
Under this current administration, the fabric of this country has been mercilessly riddled by hate. We see its progression most powerfully today in the detention of innocent children at the southern border. This administration’s public loathings of LatinX seeking refuge from violence and poverty are only escalating. The “crisis”, borne solely from dictatorial aspirations and immoral political machinations, has now resulted in children living in filthy cages, deprived of basic human needs. (The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the federal government, in providing what it referred to as “safe and sanitary” conditions for detained migrant children, is not obligated to provide the children with toothbrushes, soap, or even beds.)
This “crisis” works for the current administration. After all, 2020 is fast approaching, and Trump must continue to throw red meat at his base.
How did this happen in what once was the greatest nation on earth? How? When we think about the Holocaust, we think, “Never again!” The Holocaust can never happen again, right? Wrong.
As the survivors told me during our videotaping sessions, the Holocaust began with small acts of marginalization and dehumanization. Then there were threats of mass deportation and family separations. Throughout, Hitler (a serial liar) admonished his people and his armies to dismiss the hysterical “rantings” of the free press as phony news. He promised to, “Make Germany great again.” Germany’s independent judicial system came under attack, and in an act of unbridled racism, an “other” was named to blame for the nation’s woes: The Jews.
By studying the emergence of Naziism — a doctrine that detonated into mass genocide — it becomes quite easy to see what led up to the detention of these persecuted children here, in the land of the free.
Immigrants have been targeted as the cause of many of America’s problems by Trump and his administration. Mass deportation threats hang over the heads of many undocumented immigrants who have been in America for years — including the Dreamers. Family separations were so hastily executed at the border that the likelihood of reuniting these children with their families becomes more remote with each passing day.
It has been documented that thousands upon thousands of lies have been told by Trump. He vilifies the free press, free speech and seeks to limit voting rights. He worships dictators, maligns our allies, coddles white nationalists (Charlottesville), appoints corrupt actors to high government positions, denies climate change, has been publicly heard to denigrate women, people of color, those of varying ethnicities and more.
The similarities between what Trump is attempting to do to this once sturdy democracy and the rise of Naziism are alarming. Now, there are American concentration camps. Some observers on social media and in the mainstream media have protested that comparisons to the Holocaust era concentration camps cannot be made. Some of us know better.
For me, a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust, the inhumane living conditions under which these innocent children are forced to exist can indeed be called “American concentration camps.” Like the concentration camps in Eastern Europe during WWII, these camps are ghastly and dehumanizing for these tiny, blameless prisoners. The filth and neglect they experience daily can lead to disease and even death.
As a country once made great by its humanitarian values and principles, we — ordinary citizens — must not stand by in silence while our government executes these wicked policies and forces children to live in fear. Students of the Holocaust know that the time to act is now. Agitate loudly against these vulgar policies. They are very same policies that provided the spark of hate that ignited the Holocaust inferno in Nazi Germany.
“I would always dream I was a cat or a dog,” said one woman who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, a concentration/death camp. “Anything that was treated with more humanity than we were.”