Visitors at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in Germany, on the Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2017. (Maurizio Gambarini/via AP)
Photo: Maurizio Gambarini
Photo: Maurizio Gambarini

Opinion: Standing in Germany, hearing Holocaust’s echoes from America

I was a long way from my home and my Temple community in Atlanta last month, but the parallels were scary. I was in Germany in late July on a 12-day tour of Holocaust sites. I’d brought 18 African American students with me and I could see the surprise and concern on their faces.

For the past several years, I have led delegations of African American high school students to Germany. Why Germany? As a Black Jewish man, I go to Germany because I believe that this group of youngsters, who are often marginalized in America, can learn from the parallel plight of Jews during the Holocaust. They too can pledge “Never again.”

With eyes wide open, these young people are learning about the Holocaust in ways that a classroom cannot teach. They heard firsthand testimonials from survivors, viewed graphic imagery and walked the grounds where Jews were slaughtered while visiting The Jewish Museum Berlin, the Topography of Terror, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the Nazi Party Grounds, and the Nuremberg Trials Museum Exhibition.

These African American students have been moved in many ways like Jews. The students have found the atrocities of the Holocaust to be vivid reminders of their history as African Americans in America. They now understand the description of Jews as “the other” is very similar to their description as “minorities” in America.

They heard the stories of how Jews and other political prisoners endured public humiliation at the hands of harsh SS guards, which they liken to the plight of the millions of Black men massively incarcerated or shot by police on the streets in America. And, they saw how the use of propaganda by Hitler was used to convince the majority population of Germans that “the other” was a threat to them in much the same way that our U.S. President has denigrated immigrants and other people of color in America. Several of the students remarked to me, “If I were told to go back to the country I came from, where would I go?”

These young African American teens also see the parallels of the Nazi regime to the current political climate in America. They have asked: “Is Nazism rising again?” They have spoken about the separation of children at the Mexico borders by asking: “How different is the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border different from the separation of Jewish children from their parents during the Holocaust?”

As I pondered this experience with my students, I thought: If young African American teens are relating the Jewish Holocaust to their own experiences (both current and historical) of injustice in America, then we Jews must see the significance of the denigration of immigrants and others happening today.

As Jews, we cannot afford the luxury of isolationism. Our fate as Jews is connected to that of others. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Jews and other people of conscience must denounce hate whenever it surfaces and from whomever it comes, whether a person on the street or the President of the United States. I believe that hate is a part of a family of “-isms” that categorizes people by the color of their skin, religion or sexual orientation and then casts these groups as “the other.” It can be anti-Semitic, it can be racist, it can be homophobic, and it can be xenophobic. These “-isms” are all cousins, all part of the same evil family.

The blatant rhetoric of hate coming from the White House today and the inexplicable silence from Republican Congressional leaders is troubling. They may be silent. We must not.

John H. Eaves, PhD, is executive director of the Atlanta-based Global Youth Ambassadors Program. He is a former Chairman of the Fulton County Commission.

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