OPINION: Holocaust survivor’s message is a call to action for us all

Esther Basch, who survived the Holocaust as a teenager, is telling her story of forgiveness, as well as how she became known as "The Honey Girl of Auschwitz." (Photo courtesy Rabbi Dovid Bush)

Credit: Rabbi Dovid Bush

Credit: Rabbi Dovid Bush

Esther Basch, who survived the Holocaust as a teenager, is telling her story of forgiveness, as well as how she became known as "The Honey Girl of Auschwitz." (Photo courtesy Rabbi Dovid Bush)

A few days before 95-year-old Esther Basch, “the Honey Girl of Auschwitz,” came to town to share her story as a Holocaust survivor, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta received a bomb threat.

The federation’s building in Midtown was evacuated. After a two-hour investigation, police determined the bomb threat was a hoax.

This incident took place the day before the 108th anniversary of the killing of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in Marietta by an antisemitic mob.

That anniversary had barely passed before antisemitic flyers, stuffed in plastic bags, were distributed throughout the Cobb County city. Similar incidents had previously occurred in Kennesaw and Acworth, according to news reports.

This was the environment that awaited Basch and her daughter, Rachel Turet, both of whom live in Arizona. They have been touring the country nonstop for the past year to share Basch’s message of love — how she has managed to forgive the Nazis who imprisoned her and murdered her father and countless others. She came at a time when some people seem intent on fomenting hate.

Last year in the U.S., antisemitic incidents climbed to the highest level in more than four decades, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Incidents increased by 36% over the previous year.

In May, the Biden Administration released the first U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. Meanwhile, in Georgia, where incidents increased 63% over the previous year, state lawmakers in the last legislative session failed to bring to a vote a bill that would have defined antisemitism and included it in the state’s hate crime law. The change would allow for harsher criminal penalties when Jewish people are targeted in crimes.

Jewish institutions in some cities, including Atlanta, have turned to community-based programs under the direction of Secure Community Network, a nationwide tracking system that helps assess threats and set up protocols.

I appreciate and admire Basch’s ability to forgive people who committed unspeakable horrors. But, when we spoke by phone, I was angry and disgusted about the inability of our leaders to address acts of hatred with consequences that might actually serve as a deterrent. I am self-aware enough to know that I have no compassion for perpetrators of hate speech and hate crimes. I wanted to understand Basch’s journey to forgiveness.

Antisemitism is growing, a cause of concern for everyone who knows history, she said. “It makes me feel very, very sad.”

Basch began publicly sharing her story of being held in a Nazi concentration camp after meeting one of the American soldiers who liberated the camp.

“When I speak, it feels like a burden is off my shoulders,” she said before an event held at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs. “I don’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I remember every second of my past.”

On Basch’s 16th birthday, she and her mother were sent to Auschwitz. When they were pulled from their lives, her mother was still carrying the eggs that she planned to use to bake a cake for her.

Basch, who grew up in Czechoslovakia, would later learn her father, a rabbi, was sent directly to his death. It was her father, she said, who taught her to love people, regardless of their race or religion, and to use positive thinking to lead a happy life.

She said miracles kept her alive during her time in Auschwitz and at the labor camps, where she was held for more than nine months before U.S. soldiers liberated prisoners.

When the soldiers invited them to collect whatever they wanted from town, Basch found a jar of honey and used her fingers to lift its sweetness into her mouth. Eating the honey made her so ill that she had to stay in the infirmary for a month to regain her health, earning her the moniker “the Honey Girl of Auschwitz.”

Survivor accounts like Basch’s are increasingly important as the history of the Holocaust fades in our collective memory. Rabbi Ari Sollish, director of the Torah Center ATL, said hearing stories from people like Basch — people who have maintained a positive outlook on life — can serve as inspiration for us all, particularly those who are young.

“The point is not to bring everyone back 80 years,” he said. “It is about education and positivity and love and sensitivity and how we should be there for each other.”

We have seen recent examples of this in the outpouring of support for members of the Jewish community when acts of hatred have occurred in metro Atlanta, Macon and other parts of Georgia.

Basch said she has felt that same kind of support from the people she has met during speaking engagements — the neo-Nazi who begged her forgiveness, the children who promise to never forget and the adults who find her forgiveness contagious enough to make changes in their own lives.

“If I don’t forgive, if I hold a grudge, I only hurt myself,” Basch said. “I cannot forget the horrors they put me through, but I can forgive.”

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