We speak the words: Shoah, Holocaust, the unforgettable fire that consumed six million Jews and five million others in unspeakable hatred. We look at ourselves in the waters of time, see those who came before us and watch the ripples that echo even 70 years after the fact, knowing there is no way to truly heal from the horror.
We just sit and talk; talk as if we can’t fully process that it actually happened. We talk about the relatives we lost and the older generations still living with numbers still on their arms. We say “Never Again,” although sometimes just as a catchphrase without questioning what it actually means. But there is a lot to say about the Holocaust that can’t be summed up in those two words. And we’re still trying.
I have felt the ripples of the Shoah my whole life. My mother catalogued testimonies at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation for almost seven years and suffered the trauma of hearing the terrible stories day after day, which she would share with us every day after she got home from work; some still haunt me.
As I got older the Holocaust was taught in a way that it was supposed to motivate my Judaism; again and again I was told I was a foil against Hitler’s plan of exterminating Jews, and therefore should conduct myself in that way. After so many years of having the tragedy of my people thrust upon me, I became numb to it.
I have many words about the Holocaust. But the one thing I can never leave out of my discussion is the night I heard a man roar.
It was July of 2005, and I was sitting in a classroom at Georgetown University. And there he was, my economics professor standing in front. He was a giant, even for me, and I stand at almost six feet; a portly Sicilian man who somehow had a thick Virginia accent and whose personality dominated any room. He was highly libertarian, distrustful of government and free market to an absurd degree. I loved to impersonate his classroom pacing in the courtyard of our apartment building, and how he ended almost all his arguments with, “And then you die. And… THAT… would be a tragedy.”
He was Catholic and talked about how much he loved his wife and kids. He graded on curves when he knew the material was difficult (then watched us all get mad at the guy who scored 100 percent, as he was an avowed communist and didn’t believe in the free market). When it came time for the final, he allowed us to explore unusual topics — mine was the Adam Smith water-to-diamonds paradox compared to wands and broomsticks in the Harry Potter universe.
But that night in July, he roared.
We were taking notes, scribbling as he talked, watching him pacing back and forth across the length of the room. He was going over how 170 million people had died at the hands of their own governments in the 20th century, 50 million of those from war.
He asked: If only 50 million of those were from war, where did the rest of those people come from? From governments who decimated their own for their own agendas, no matter how terrible they were.
“If you want proof, go to the Holocaust museum,” he said. “Walk through the room with the shoes. Smell the shoes, and remember that there were once people in them.”
Suddenly, there were girlish giggles from the corner; two students were whispering to one another. Whether it was related to his seriousness or some other topic, I will never be sure. But I remember the fury.
It was an explosion, a bomb of anger that they weren’t understanding the depths of what he was talking about. His personality that was so passionate about what he was teaching became a fire that would destroy anything in its path.
He began yelling about they couldn’t understand the horrors of people being slaughtered because they were comfortable sitting in a classroom. Millions of people died simply for being who they were; nothing more, nothing less. Each pair of shoes was a person who was snuffed out because of hatred. They couldn’t understand hate that way because they had never seen it, and by turning a blind eye to it makes it almost a guarantee that they’ll see it again.
The room was stunned into silence. He tried to continue on, but it had grown late. And as the class ended, this giant of a man dissolved into tears.
When a lot of the class left, I went to him. My presence was followed by several of my friends; they were all black. I sat with my professor, comforting him, listening to him as he was distressed at the ignorance of our fellow students. He looked up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.
“I’m not Jewish,” he said to me. “I can’t imagine what it was like for you.”
“People make Holocaust jokes all the time,” I replied. “I have to tune it out in order to survive.”
“We know,” one of my friends said. “We do it all the time with jokes about slavery.”
We all continued to talk together, and spent plenty of hours afterwards discussing. Our conversation awoke something inside of me. It was like we found a rotted tree and dug up its roots. In the tangled wood was all the hatred of the world, and it reached up to the sky with different branches – homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. They are all different, but the common ground is that hate can destroy everything around it, like a weed. But only if we let it.
So many years have passed since that night in July. We have all since left Georgetown and my classmates, professor and I have gone to our own corners of the world. But no matter where I go, I will never forget that night.
I have packed it and unpacked it millions of times. I have written about it time and again, when a larger-than-life Catholic man fought against hate for a people not his own, but deep down he knew all people were he is to embrace. When my black friends began to understand my struggle and I learned about theirs. It has manifested into my life in many different ways, from the pallbearers I chose for my mother’s funeral to my current job at a non-profit where we teach tolerance for all, as well as the history of the Holocaust, genocide and hate crimes to students and professionals throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
And my professor was right. We are seeing hate yet again. The roots of the tree are the same, but it’s almost like it’s adapted to a new climate and it is growing stronger with every passing minute. And the worst part is there are people out there defending it and helping it grow, suffocating voices who are calling for a better way.
As I am breathing deeply, as I am told “Never again” yet again, I wonder: Are we ready to do what it takes to heed those words? Are we going to giggle in fear of the task at hand? Are we going to dismiss it, say, “it’s not THAT bad”? Or are we going to roar like that July night, remind ourselves of the fight at hand and join each other in solidarity to make a better world?
My choice is to roar. What’s yours?
Hey Sean Spicer. I am here to tell you something important about the Holocaust: You don’t know shit about it.
It’s not like me to be vulgar in my writing. I’m usually one who likes to remain poetic and intelligent whenever I create these types of things. But the truth is that you don’t know anything about the Shoah. You don’t know shit.
The truth is not many people do. I don’t care how many times you have heard Holocaust stories, been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or even Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. You don’t know shit about it, and that’s the truth.
You might know the fact that six million Jews were sent to their deaths (although apparently your boss doesn’t). They weren’t the only ones. There were communists, gypsies, homosexuals and political rivals, people with disabilities and people of color. This is the short list. In total, the Nazis sentenced 11 million to death for being themselves.
You probably know about the concentration camps, although apparently you forgot about the gas chambers and their Zyklon B. You don’t know about the people forced to lie on the ground and have Nazi officers ride horses across them, and whoever lived were the lucky ones. You don’t know about the people who would be forced to dig their own graves and then be shot into them. How people would sometimes come to watch, as if they were going to the movies.
You don’t know shit.
You don’t know the people who would do anything to escape. They hid diamonds underneath their skin so the Nazis couldn’t confiscate them, using them to buy passage through Europe to safer places. They were the people who would do anything for freedom, who escaped on boats to places where their lives wouldn’t be taken. And sometimes, when on those vessels, were turned away from different governments and sent back to the slaughter.
You don’t know the people who risked their lives to save people. Priests who took in hundreds of children and let them grow up safe in their care. There were the men who forged documents in order to give people the safe passage to other countries. There were the women who hid families under floorboards, in attics, far away from the prying eyes of the Nazis. They risked their lives. You don’t know them.
You do know many of the neighbors of the ones who were taken. They turned their heads, hoping to save their own skins, not realizing that there were certain things in this world worth dying for. You know them because they are you, Mr. Spicer. They are your boss, his friends and those who kowtow to his whims. You are them now, in this moment.
They were you when you argued for banning people because of their faith. They were you when you dismissed the press simply because they disagreed with you and dissented. They were you when you have defended the actions of your boss, and affirmed his beliefs no matter how misguided they were.
Don’t believe me? If I asked you, at this moment, to take in a Muslim man, woman or child under pain of death at the hands, you’d probably shake your head and say absolutely not. You couldn’t risk that. Just proves my point: You don’t know shit.
You are not the one who understands the dangers of history repeating itself. Rather, you are the one trying to use it to your advantage, clean up the parts you don’t like and then play it for your puppeteering and spin doctoring.
You don’t know shit about it. You don’t know shit about the Holocaust.
I believe in the kindness of people, in the goodness of the world despite its evils. I’d like to believe we are better than another Holocaust. But with one hand you would take the evils of the past and with the other create the same exact circumstances that led to the past’s events.
And for me, and my future children and friends’ children, I will say the words that echo in my heart like a rhythmic song: Never again. And when I say those words, I say them for all mankind, no matter color, creed or anything in between; not just for those who I deem worthy at any given moment.
The question is whether or not the Holocaust happened; fortunate for those of us who need to constantly prove the history to Holocaust deniers (and possibly you too), the Nazis were stellar record keepers who kept meticulous entries of all their atrocities. The question is how do we conduct our lives based on this information. In a world where anger and finger-pointing run rampant, were hatred is easier than love and openness, how do we face the future?
Mr. Spicer, it’s time to educate yourself. You need to know more than just the basic facts of the Holocaust. You need to know more than the six million dead Jews.
You need to know the thousands scarred, the subtle history leading to the atrocities of war that we are mirroring on a day-to-day basis. You need to know about the boats turned away and the people who were sent back to the slaughter because people were too busy being scared rather than loving.
You need to know that that six million isn’t just a number; it’s human lives, people who had families and who loved and were loved. Six million souls, six million lights extinguished from the world and countless generations of humans who could change the world for the better, but perished at the hands of ignorance and fear.
Only then can you say, “Never again.”
Until then, you don’t know shit. You don’t know, you can’t know. And add your name to the list of the guilty, who sacrificed millions of lives for the easy way out.
When I perform my standup routines, one of the staples of my comedy is my joke set that talks about how ludicrous anti-Semitism is. For me, it’s important to do with the growing Jewish hatred in the world, and I feel like I crafted some good pieces.
After one of my early shows, the comedian that came after me, seeing the popularity of these jokes, decided to capitalize on it with an old joke of his.
“So Macklemore supposedly dressed as a Jew for a concert,” he said. “But I don’t think he did. His shoes weren’t stained with the blood of Palestinian children.”
The entire audience hissed in horror. He had crossed the line. It was one of the few times I can recall in my comedy life that I was through and through offended (and I have heard some awful things). But as he pulled back and continued with a bunch of vulgar sex jokes, I had to sit back and wonder about the hatred towards my people. I was trying to dismantle anti-Semitism with jokes, but it’s like trying to take a brick out of the Great Wall of China and hoping that it will topple.
Today is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. More than 70 years prior, anti-Semitism reached its modern peak, where there was a plan throughout Europe to exterminate my people. The rest of the world turned away, not allowing the Jews there to escape and to flee the destruction at the hands of the Nazis.
This happened in my grandparents’ generation. It’s not as far away as we think it is; it feels sometimes as if it lives next door to me. There are people still alive who were in the camps. And with the atrocities documented for the entire world to see, you’d think that we’d be over this anti-Semitism monster by now. But centuries of blood libel, (which, ironically and probably unknowingly, that comedian was using as a supposed punchline for a joke) is a hard habit to break. And in moments like those, I can’t help but to think, in the face of the world today, about how close Auschwitz is.
Anti-Semitism has gone from the concept of killing Jesus to blood libel, then eventually into the modern world, where religion wasn’t as much of a factor and it became a form of racism during the Holocaust. As money became the faith of choice for many, it was easy to blame Jews due to centuries in money lending. Some Christians in the Victorian era considered money “dirty,” but this stigma didn’t matter to Jews. The same went for theater, cinema and journalism, as these were considered to be low-grade professions. When media became a currency in the modern world, Jews were blamed there too. And after centuries of hate, it was easy.
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower found the camps back in 1945, he ordered his troops to get everything they saw on film. He said that if he didn’t, people would deny that this ever happened in the modern era. And even though there is plenty of evidence, people still pretend like it never existed. Luckily, this is not as popular of a concept in the Western world as it is in other parts.
In college, someone tried to argue with me that Jews aren’t a minority. Yet we are less than one percent of the human population. The only thing is that we fortunate that we can blend in. Our attempts to join the modern world aren’t blatant, but they’re there. Many of us in the United States aren’t that religious. Girls try to hide the Jewishness of their looks through nose jobs and hair straighteners. The guys get inked, date non-Jewish girls and obsess over bacon. They’re not blatant, but they’re there.
This actually isn’t dissimilar from what happened before the Nazis took over in Germany, where many Jews over centuries blended into secular life. And it wasn’t like the next day it was time to kill Jews. It happened slowly and became indoctrinated until it was a normal part of life for those living under the Third Reich.
The most amazing thing that I have ever seen about hate is how it transforms just to keep living on and feeding off of ignorance. Even with racism against blacks and Latinos, it has transformed from skin color into “welfare culture” and “immigration reform.” It’s much easier to go after these things and still be liked than to use ethnic slurs, but it is a slippery slope.
Today, anti-Semitism has a new face that is considered to be more acceptable by the mainstream world. It’s one that the comedian that night was trying to use to his advantage: It’s the fact that, for the first time in modern history, Jews now have a country to call our own. And it’s easy to say you have Jewish friends, but then yell about “those Jews over there.” Even Martin Luther King, Jr. could see it.
When I had to hear at a bar, “I know you’re a Jew, but what kind of Jew are you?” it’s easy to see it anti-Semitism play out as a concept even when it’s not supposed to. Hate becomes insidious; out-and-out racism is not accepted anymore, but political disagreement certainly is, and is used as an excuse for bad behavior across the board.
The other day, I ran into a French woman that I see regularly when I walk through Abbott Kinney. She’s Jewish, and when she mentioned Charlie Hebdo, her small body began to shake. Her family is still in Paris and shops regularly at the kosher market where four people (Jews, which the media was so hesitant to report) were killed by the terrorists.
“I’m going,” she said. “I’m leaving the United States.”
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“Eretz Yisrael. My family’s going too. Moving to Tel Aviv with my son. It’s not safe in France anymore. And I don’t know if America’s next.”
I felt her fear in recent months, with attacks even in Los Angeles against Jews. No matter how hard we hide, the stories keep coming up. Argentina, Eastern Europe, New York. And there are certain countries in the Middle East that Jews aren’t even allowed to step in.
And yet… there is hope. Unlike in the days of Auschwitz, there is a place to go if the world turns on us. I will not espouse that Israel is a perfect country. On the contrary, I went there and can tell you there are enough civil issues in the country to make you forget about “The Other Problem.” (That’s the nicest way I can say it without getting crazy, and for the record, I do believe in a two-state solution.) But in times of desperation and hate, it exists. Beyond any shadow of reason, it lives. When the Nazis came for my people, it didn’t, and as a result six million of us, along with five million others ranging from gays and lesbians to political prisoners, were slaughtered.
When the call of hatred is knocking on your door, so easy to succumb to, what do you choose to fight with? Anger is the easiest weapon, but it can destroy more than it can save. I choose humor, words, songs, food, but above everything, I choose love to destroy the ignorance that permeates this world, no matter how futile it seems, and to prevent Auschwitz from ever returning for my people.
Choose your weapon. But make sure you can live with the consequences.
In Nazi-controlled Europe, there were people who stood up against the regime by taking in their Jewish neighbors. Not everyone was so willing, though: To harbor Jews and keep them from the Nazis meant risking your life, so it is the rare person that became what is known now as the “Righteous among nations” by Yad Vashem.
As the uprising in the Middle East occurs, so does the anti-Semitic language that fuels Europe. Jews having their businesses bombed (as pictured above) and being cornered in synagogues in France. A rabbi beaten in Morocco. A Twitter hashtag, #Hitlerwasright, trending. Protests in Germany with shouts of, “Gas the Jews!”
And when I hear this and read my friends’ criticism of everything to do with Israel, I wonder about if they would ever turn on me. What would happen if we ever had to face persecution and destruction on the scale of the Holocaust? How would my non-Jewish friends respond? Would they be the righteous among nations and take in their Jewish friends… or find that politics are deeper than any friendship that we have promised to each other?
Before Nazi Germany, many of the people who would become loyal to Hitler lived side by side with Jews. They were their intellectual equals, playmates, fellow students and family friends. But then, as the changes began to sweep through from the new government, those loyalties shifted too. It wasn’t sudden, but rather baby steps to get there. It was rare when a person followed their moral standing and housed their neighbors, co-workers, lovers or friends. But as the tension rises in Europe, it makes me wonder who would change their loyalties on the turn of a dime.
I know what I would do if the role was reversed. If I had a Muslim friend who was being persecuted, I would take them into my home and protect them with everything I have. It’s the kind of person I am, and it takes a lot for me to renege on a friendship. For me, it’s better to be doing what’s right according to my conscience than to stand on the right side of the law.
I have learned that people come before politics, but not everyone thinks that way. I feel like as I have gotten older my friends have become more polarized and use their politics as battlegrounds, not as a meeting of minds. They know me as a Jew, but not that kind of Jew — whatever the hell that means. I can’t hide my identity, nor should I have to. Many Jews do, but this is not my choice.
Yet I sometimes wonder, as the politics rise up and we get swept away, who would take me in if I had no place to go? I wonder if they would see me as an “Israeli Zionist pig” rather than a human being who would love them no matter what. We work together, sing together, play together and celebrate together, but it sometimes doesn’t take much to turn us on each other.
It’s interesting, because as many people bring up the Holocaust in terms of the creation of Israel, they don’t bring up a more important case: The Dreyfus Affair, when in 1894 a French military captain named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted for treason for allegedly selling military secrets. He was an easy target, since he was Jewish and considered therefore to be “unloyal.” He was embarrassed publicly, with crowds shouting, “Death to the Jews!”
It was this case that inspired Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. He realized that the Jews needed a place to go, where we could be safe and protected. When the Holocaust occurred, there was no place like this, and Jews were turned away from almost every country, including the United States. As a result six million Jews went to their deaths. The righteous among nations stood up, but they were steady rocks of character that don’t often have equals. And now I live in a world where if anything were to happen to my people, I could go and be welcomed into a country with open arms.
I would like to think that most of my non-Jewish friends are people of character who would see me and never let anything bad happen to me simply because I am a Jew. But I can’t help but to question sometimes, as some of my friends hold their politics higher than anything else in their worlds. Would they forget that I am a human who loves them no matter what they believe? Could they remember that we are friends and if, G-d forbid, they were in my situation I would protect them? Would they put their politics aside for one second and see the faces of their friends, lovers and co-workers rather than the blindness of their moral outrage?
You have every right to believe whatever you believe. However, remember that I have two eyes, two hands and a beating heart with blood pumping through my veins. Just like you. Just like everyone else in this saga.