In the Face of Rising Antisemitism, Look to Italian Holocaust Survivor and Politician Liliana Segre
In 2019 as in 1939, the Jewish future is being threatened by the moral paralysis that the Irish poet William Butler Yeats once lamented: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
But hope sometimes grows from bitter roots.
The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University not long ago concluded, “Europe’s largest Jewish communities are experiencing a normalization and mainstreaming of antisemitism not seen since the Second World War. … There has been an increase in open, unashamed, and explicit hatred directed against Jews. … It is like we have regressed 100 years.”
Yet 89-year-old Liliana Segre, an Italian voice of Holocaust memory and Senator for Life appointed by the President of the Republic, refuses to curse the darkness.
She was a child in 1938 when Mussolini’s Racial Law turned life upside down for her Milanese Jewish family. On September 8, 1943, the very day that Italy surrendered to the Allies, teenage Liliana and her father and grandparents tried to escape the German army invading Italy by fleeing to Switzerland. They were captured at the border and eventually deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. While all her family members were murdered within days, she survived a year-and-a-half forced labor in a munitions factory. After a death march between camps, she was liberated on May 1, 1945 from Malchow, a sub-camp of Ravensbrück. Liliana was one of 25 children among the 776 Italian youngsters under 14 years old deported to Germany who emerged alive.
Married and a mother, Liliana was not ready until 1990 to become a public voice for Italian Jews who survived the Shoah.
In this country, generations have taken it for granted that there will always be a moral compass to guide the ship of state. Without such a guiding compass, countries inevitably founder and peoples lose their way. Without it, Germany followed Hitler’s siren song into the abyss of World War II and the Holocaust. Except for it, African-American slaves would not have been freed under Abraham Lincoln.
Even when great presidents have been martyred, Americans have retained faith that such deaths were not in vain. Yet in our hyper-polarized times, is this still true?
Feeding fear of the future is a global epidemic of terrible forgetting — of hatred or indifference to Jews and history — that threatens to unilaterally disarm the Western world that defeated Hitler.
Now, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, vandalizing of synagogues and schools, and attacks on Jews of all ages and religious persuasions have malignantly arisen from history’s grave on the plazas of Berlin and the streets of Brooklyn.
How can our country and world reclaim its moral compass and protect our collective soul?
One way is to look to the indomitable Holocaust survivors who are still with us. Look to Italy’s Liliana Segre. Approaching 90, she sponsored a bill establishing a committee to fight antisemitism. Her reward? Every day, 200 online death threats and unrepentant defiance from her country’s right-wing parties and three-time premier Silvio Berlusconi.
A new poll of Americans shows that a majority of Republicans consider Donald Trump not only worthy of their vote for reelection but a greater president than Abraham Lincoln! On the Democratic side of the aisle, the leadership of the House of Representatives capitulated to left-wing pressure by refusing to rebuke by name in a watered-down resolution condemning antisemitism Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for their anti-Israel, anti-Jewish rhetoric.
We need inspiration to endure these times.
Liliana Segre should be our fount of hope.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).