There are not many of us left today who live with the memories of the brutal and racist Nazi regime. Of the 100,000 or so remaining throughout the world, far fewer speak up to help embed the lessons of those shameful years in the consciousness of new generations.
As a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, I take this responsibility seriously. Today, as an America citizen, I feel compelled to raise my voice when I hear echoes of my childhood years in our current political rhetoric.
The fear that immigrants (illegal and legal) in the United States must live with under the new administration’s approach is personal and familiar to me. I cannot forget the day when the Special Police came to the door of our home in Lodz, Poland, and took my father – a successful tailor and kind man – away.
We had no idea why he was taken or to where. We did not see him for more than a week. When my father finally returned home his upper body was bruised, black and blue, from the torture he’d endured. It was the start of an era that changed millions of lives forever – looking over our shoulders, keeping our heads down, sheltering each other and living with constant fear.
Now, please do not assume I am equating the consummate evil of the Nazi regime with America under our current administration. I know this nation has checks and balances, elected officials with courage, citizens who are unafraid of speaking out and a democracy that works. I know there are not American gas chambers and gallows awaiting those taken abruptly from our streets. But here is what we have in common: We have fear.
Because Jewish people, Romani families, the disabled and others were the targets of hate speech and despicable actions under Nazi dominance, we all lived in fear. With every knock on the door, my mother rushed to hide my little brother, Avram, who, as a fragile and small boy was a target for the Secret Police. Neighbors huddled inside, afraid to go to work or shop for food. School for me, a place I loved, was deemed too dangerous, and my childhood was stolen.
Unfortunately, many thousands of Latino families are living this nightmare today. They have learned from example as friends and families are ripped apart based on “crimes” no more dangerous than a minor traffic ticket. They make plans to have their American born, citizen-children transferred to a friend or relative in case mom and dad are deported. They stop driving, shopping, participating in school and church activities because fear is now their daily companion.
And here is where I do cast blame on the political movement that brought it about. Verbal and physical attacks on this nation’s immigrants are daily events. Latinos, Muslims (and people who “look” Muslim), and Jewish centers are targets. Throughout the months of the 2016 presidential campaign, people were given permission to use language and express opinions that had previously been unacceptable.
More than once, then-candidate Donald Trump appeared to encourage violence, as he did in a 2016 rally in response to protestors: “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.” Suddenly it became OK to hate out loud and demonstrably.
This is the kind of social and political climate that leads to injustice. America has been here before. Sacramento, our sanctuary city, has felt the cruelty of hate crimes.
Now, as I continue to spread the lessons of the Holocaust to youngsters throughout the world, I find myself yearning to reach those disenfranchised Americans who feel set free to enforce a climate of fear in this country – a country that, for centuries, has served as a sanctuary. A country built by immigrants, both the documented as well as those who fled their countries of origin in undocumented desperation.
America has waged a hard-fought battle for freedom, equality and justice for all. I pray we do not forget those lessons of our collective history as so many people now feel empowered to express themselves in dangerous words and actions.
Bernard Marks of Sacramento founded the Eleanor J. Marks Foundation, publishing essays of schoolchildren about victims of the Holocaust. He has spent decades traveling the world to educate the younger generation about the Holocaust. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.