Jewish Survival: The True Story of the Holocaust
Maybe Simon Wiesenthal was wrong. Maybe the majority of survivors who stumbled out of the liberated death camps, and the few who were hidden by the righteous at the end of the Shoah, were right.
From the moment of his liberation at Mauthausen by American soldiers, Simon Wiesenthal spoke up — shouted really — before a largely uncaring world, heroically taking on the cause of six million ghosts in a quest to bring their murderers before the bar of justice.
Overwhelmingly however, the Seridai Aish, the remnant of once proud historic Jewish communities from Poland to France, from Russia and the Netherlands, to Italy, Greece, and Belgium, chose to remain silent.
Seventy-five years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 73 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — at a time when the last vestiges of the generation of perpetrators and their victims are inexorably leaving the world stage — we have the right and obligation to reflect on the choice of silence that our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters made.
First and foremost, there was relentless pain and sense of loss. Many survivors told me that when they came to America, Canada, and Australia they were told by well-meaning Jews, “We know you had a bad time in Europe, but it is time to put the past behind you and move on.”
My friend Cantor Avshalom Katz told me about the warm nights in his neighborhood — before there was air conditioning in Israel — when you could hear the cries of neighbors in the middle of the night, screaming from their unending nightmares of the Nazi years.
Other survivors wanted to shield their children from the horrors of the Shoah, from the realities of pre-war Europe, where antisemitic hate was the rule, not the exception.
Members of our wonderful team of volunteer survivors have poured their hearts out to millions of young people. I remember back in 1978, when we first began bringing young people and Shoah survivors together, Renee Firestone, Magda Bass, and Lee Stewart expressed two fears: Can our words reach young Americans? And most of all, what happens if, God forbid, people won’t believe what we went through? What if future generations turn their backs on Memory?
It turns out that their fears were not without foundation.
Despite the fact that the Nazi Holocaust is the most documented mass atrocity in human history, in 2018 we are confronted with state-sponsored denial from the Iranian Mullahocracy. We also witness a US citizen, Arthur Jones, who will be listed as the official Republican candidate on November’s ballot in an Illinois Congressional district, whose public resume is an open sewer of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and Holocaust denial.
In our time, we see the Internet and social media hijacked by haters, racists, and antisemites committed to desecrating, perverting, and destroying the legacy of Anne Frank, one of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by Nazis, but whose love of life is forever immortalized in her magnificent diary.
We live in a time of moral confusion and relativism, when the biblical-based concept of respecting all living creatures is hijacked by “activists” who co-opt the images of victims of the death camps to equate them with chickens, pigs, and cows.
Our children are exposed to jokes on social media about the genocide of Jews and our Israeli families are slandered by the Palestinian leadership. On the same day that Hamas alleged that the Holocaust was invented by the Jews and their supporters, Palestinian Authority TV misrepresented a photo of concentration camp victims as Arabs and wrote that Jews burned Arabs in ovens.
All the while, anti-Israel fanatics in the West, politicians, and academics label the Jewish nation as latter-day Nazis.
And in the lifetime of Shoah survivors, we once again witness the targeting of our Jewish brothers and sisters in Europe. They are denigrated, not protected, by leaders in Britain’s Labour Party; cursed by neo-Nazis in Gothenburg, Sweden, near their synagogue on Yom Kippur; and bullied in schools in Germany by classmates — often immigrants from societies steeped in Jew-hatred. Then there is France, where judges refuse to deal seriously with those convicted of antisemitic hate crimes, and where Jews have been raped, tortured, burnt, and thrown out their window by thugs whose hatred has been supercharged by Islamist theological terrorists. Jews like Mireille Knoll, a Paris widow, who seven decades ago was lucky enough to evade the cattle cars to Auschwitz that took thousands of Jewish children to their deaths, only to be murdered in 2018 in her modest apartment in the City of Lights.
Survivors can rightly ask, what has changed 75 years later, when innocent children and mothers and fathers are still being gassed? Social media transmits images of little children whose dying gasps were accompanied with frothing at the mouth. The perpetrator is Syria’s Assad — who would like to do the same to every Jewish child in the Holy Land with the help of his senior Iranian partners, but can’t because today we have a strong Israel that can and will defend her own.
And yet we all know that silence is admittance. It’s never been the Jewish way. One of the Torah’s first moral demands is that we can never stand by silently when innocent blood is shed. That is why Israel’s chief rabbi has urged Israel to act to save Syrians, despite their longstanding state of war against the Jewish nation.
Simon Wiesenthal and Elie Wiesel understood that the Nazis had two goals: Murder Jews and eradicate Jewish life. As victims of the Nazi beasts, they could not protect their loved ones; but as survivors, they heroically strove to rehabilitate Jewish values and Jewish life. Wiesel used the power of words to protect memory; Simon put his life on the line every day to rehabilitate the Jewish and universal value of justice, which the Nazis almost succeeded in destroying in word and deed.
If there are war crimes tribunals in our world, it is only because of Simon Wiesenthal. If millions of people around the world stand in solidarity against Nazism, both old and new, it is because of the words of Anne Frank and Eli Wiesel. If there is a flourishing Jewish state in 2018, it is because of the sacrifice of Holocaust survivors who clawed their way out of despair to fight in the War of Independence in 1948, married and brought children into the world, and rebuilt Jewish life in Israel and across the globe, despite the horrors and loss they experienced.
Let me finish by sharing an experience I had in front of the grave of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta.
Some years ago, we brought the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s renowned Courage to Remember Holocaust exhibition to the MLK Center. One prominent African-American elected official arrived early to seek me out.
He proceeded to tell me his amazing personal journey. He was the middle child of seven children from a dysfunctional family in Harlem. He overcame incredible odds, graduated law school, moved to Georgia, and eventually was elected to the state legislature. “But I have never felt complete as a person, Rabbi” he said. “Why not?” I asked. He answered: “I have spent years investigating my roots. Despite all my efforts, I can only trace back as far as a plantation in Virginia in the 1850s. But as I am the great, great grandson of a slave, I have to deal with the brutal reality that I will never know where I came from, where my ancestors’ homeland was, what values they lived by. I see that it is different for the Jewish people. They somehow have managed to always connect your present to your past.”
That gentleman from Georgia is right. We Jews in Los Angeles, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Jerusalem have a strong, unbreakable bond with the past. But the post-World War II generations are blessed. We had heroes, survivors of the Shoah, the famous and anonymous, the loud and silent who secured the bridge between our past and Jewish values and a future firmly anchored in the Jewish state of Israel.
History will record that the survivors of the Shoah dealt the Nazis’ dream of a Judenfrei world a permanent deathblow.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization with over 400,000 family members.