Today, January 27, 2020 has been designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It has been 75 years since the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were liberated, and the number of people who survived the camps and can share their stories is dwindling. It is up to those of us who remember the survivors, those friends and neighbors with numbers tattooed on their arms, to keep their memories alive. It seems even more important now than it ever has before, as we confront the frightening reality that it could happen here.
But instead of talking about the terrible history of that time, I want to share a story that was told to my family one Thanksgiving, about 30 years ago. My uncle, Hal, was raised in Brooklyn, NY by parents who came to America from Russia early in the 20th century in search of a better life. Hal joined the US Army in World War II and served in Europe. After the war ended, he was part of the Occupation Forces in Germany. Hal was lodged, with other soldiers, in what had once been a private home. The homeowners were forced out of all but one room of the house, and during that winter food and warm clothing for the defeated German population was scarce. As an American Jew, Hal had every reason to be angry with these German people and find justice in their suffering. However, because he was a kind and caring man, he found them warm coats and food. Hal cried as he told us of their grateful reaction to his generosity. Most of us who listened that day cried too. It seems these people had never met a Jew before, and believed the lies they were told about an evil, hateful Jewish sub-human race. They were ashamed to have to accept Hal’s charity, and told him how sorry they were to have been led so astray. They and my uncle stayed in touch for many years, and he visited them in Germany several years after his return home to the US.
In this dark time in our country I am not trying to say that there is good in everyone. If American Jews have learned anything over the last three years, we now know that there is a lot of hatred in the U.S., and much of it is directed towards us. We do need to be vigilant against the bigotry and anti-Semitism that seems to have become more acceptable in the Trump era. To me, my uncle’s story serves as a reminder that minds can be changed by kindness, and by educating the ignorant. Many will never wish to learn, or to believe the truth, but some people have turned away from hate, and others might.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was known as “Speak softly but carry a big stick”. My suggestion on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day is that we adopt a similar policy in 2020, one in which we aspire to peaceful interaction, but always remember the lessons of the Holocaust. “Never Again” is not just a political slogan to Jews here and around the world, it is a promise we intend to keep.
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