Most of us — at least those of us who are willing to learn from history — know full well the incremental steps that led to the Holocaust, the Shoah. Despite centuries of discrimination, persecutions and pogroms in Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Slavic lands of Russia, and, regrettably, most places in between, nowhere before had there been such a systematic attempt to eliminate not only Jews but also Judaism from the face of the earth.
First the Nazi regime and its allies wanted to take away Jewish pride and self-worth. Jews were forbidden from many activities, ranging from earning a living in their professions or businesses to even the simple pleasures of eating out in a public restaurant or sitting on a public park bench. Jewish students were first prohibited from attending the best schools, and were finally ejected from all publicly-funded schools. Then, of course, they were publicly mocked, with outwardly observant Jews having their long beards pulled or cut off in public — to much amusement — or with any available Jew in sight commandeered to wash down a public street with a toothbrush.
Second, the German state took away property, both real and intangible. Commercial and business property was first placed on lists to be shunned or embargoed; we have all seen the newsreels with the Nazi goons and storm troopers gleefully painting Stars of David and “Jude” on storefront windows. When that was thought to be insufficient, the next step was obvious — simply throw the shopkeepers out and confiscate the property to give to others.
Shops and businesses, neighborhood groceries and butcher shops, as well as department store emporiums, were taken from Jews and turned over to others benefiting from Nazi largesse. Factories and other forms of businesses were on the list, both physical assets and equity shares of ownership. And let us not forget the immense quantities of personal property that was confiscated from individuals as well as communities: homes and apartments; furniture and heirlooms; Torah ornaments and other synagogue and ritual ornaments of silver and other precious metals; paintings and other works of art ripped out of private homes and well-known collections; and many synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings.
Third, when there was nothing else to take, the regime decided to take away life itself. On the streets of countless European towns and cities, in the killing fields of Babi Yar and who knows how many other unnamed and otherwise anonymous locations, and finally in the factories of death, the ultimate evil assembly line where living and breathing human souls of all ages and conditions were processed in fiendish haste to their ultimate end. Warm and caring family members became stacks of bodies or clouds of ash.
When all of that was taken away — the pride, the property and the lives — the only thing we could hold on to was memory and history. What good would it do? Like a beggar holding on to scraps of dried bread, we didn’t know if it would restore us, but we thought it would at least sustain us until something better came along. If nothing else, we would teach our children — and hopefully the world’s children — that there is such a thing as evil in this world and it must be confronted.
Look what happens, we could tell them, when the world does not face reality at its grimmest. Power exercised for evil could take away our pride and our property, and it could even take the lives of millions, but it would never be able to erase its own evil deeds from the historical record of mankind.
For most of the more than 70 years following World War II, those beliefs have held. The pride of the Jewish people has been rekindled, helped in no small part by the establishment of the State of Israel and its miraculous accomplishments in establishing the Middle East’s only vibrant democracy and its amazing record in science and technology, from agriculture to electronics. A small fraction of our property has been restored — a minor part to its original owners, and most of the remainder to either descendants or community survivors in the absence of the original owners murdered by the Nazi machine. The bulk of the stolen property is unlikely to be completely documented, much less returned. The lost lives, of course, can never be returned — neither pride nor property can replace the 6 million and their place in personal, much less, national histories.
While there have been Holocaust deniers among us for many years, none has been so bold as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in wanting to take from us perhaps the most important remnant still remaining — our own history. After our pride, our property and millions of lives were confiscated, at least — we thought — we would have history on our side in telling our story.
But this fanatic, former leader of a near-nuclear power, wanted to tell us and the world: “It never happened; your so-called history of suffering is a sham.”
And then came the Trump administration’s statement last month meant to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day: It was even more fanciful than Ahmadinejad. Certainly the Holocaust occurred, it implied, and it would be foolish to deny it.
So we must “remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes.” The president went on to pledge “to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the power of good” — all “in the name of the perished.” That the perished included the European face of the Jewish people was not mentioned.
This administration, though not to be compared in any way with the regime of Ahmadinejad, must not be permitted to tamper with the facts of the past, particularly that of a well-documented historical record that details an extremely serious attempt to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth. If the Nazis and their supporters took away Jewish pride, Jewish property and Jewish lives, no one must be permitted to take away our — and the world’s — history.
Leon Weintraub lives in Potomac.