WASHINGTON – International Holocaust Remembrance Day is always a somber time for Auschwitz survivor Irene Weiss. But this year’s observance had an additional layer of grief: For the first time, Weiss is worried about her adopted homeland.
“I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues,” the 85-year-old Weiss told me at Wednesday’s commemoration at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “They touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”
She knows better than just about any person alive. The Czech-born Jew lost her parents and most of her siblings in Hitler’s death camps. Now, when she hears about plans to register Muslims and to ban Muslims from entering the United States, “I’m worried about the tone of this country,” she said.
To Weiss, the ugly political environment in 2016 has an ominous precedent. “It has echoes, and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans,” she said after lighting a candle for Hitler’s victims. “I’m scared. I don’t like the trend. I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues. It can turn.”
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This year’s Holocaust remembrance comes at a time when Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, retweets to his nearly 6 million followers a message from @WhiteGenocideTM based in “Jewmerica,” and a time when his nearest challenger, Ted Cruz, brandishes the endorsement of a minister who says Hitler was a “hunter” sent after the Jews by God.
“It’s really frightening,” said Al Munzer, hidden as an infant in the Netherlands with a Dutch family and their Muslim nanny. “When you see these mass rallies that Trump is able to attract, you really wonder: How are they buying into this message of hate?”
Munzer, who lost two sisters and his father to the Nazis, said he never thought such things could happen in America, but now he’s not so sure. “Thinking that Germany was somehow unique is wrong,” he said.
Wednesday’s ceremony was in a hexagonal atrium with the names of death camps on the walls. The participants recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayer, and listened to the Hymn of the Partisans, the Yiddish ballad of resistance: Never say you are walking your final road.
At this time of open hostility to Muslims in America, museum staff arranged for Johanna Gerechter Neumann, who fled with her family to Albania after Kristallnacht, to talk about how Muslims protected them from Hitler. Her father, a patriotic German and World War I veteran, “certainly thought that it could never happen in Germany,” she said. “It did happen. Slowly, but it did happen.”
And now the aging survivors worry it is beginning, slowly, to happen again. “It is repeating itself, and it is again the inattention that people pay to real cues that one should understand,” said Margit Meissner, almost 94, who fled on foot through the Pyrenees from occupied France.
“It’s not Weimar,” she said, “but it could become Weimar Germany if you have Mr. Trump here and people keep believing what he says. … I think one has to speak up. And that’s the one lesson from the Holocaust: Do not be a bystander.”
In Wednesday’s ceremony, German Ambassador Peter Wittig gave a moving tribute to Martin Weiss, 87 this week, who survived Auschwitz as a 15-year-old but lost most of his family. Wittig read aloud Weiss’ recollections: “We could also smell flesh burning, and then we saw the chimneys, the big five chimneys with black smoke coming out.”
Now an American presidential candidate has made scapegoats of immigrants, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, the disabled, women. And for the first time, Martin Weiss hears echoes of his youth. “The guy scares me,” he said after listening to the ambassador’s tribute. “I don’t want to make any comparison to Hitler, but believe it or not his delivery and the way he conducts himself is very similar to Hitler’s way of doing things. He discredits everybody who disagrees with him. He’s insulting. He discriminates against everybody.”
Weiss continued: “Sooner or later, you know what happens in a case like this? That’s how Weimar Germany went to hell, because when Hitler came in, if somebody disagreed with him – guess what – he put them in prison or he had them shot or he opened the concentration camp.”
We are still far from that in America. But if anybody has the right to make the comparison, it is a man who saw the ovens of Auschwitz.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.