Archive for July, 2021

In my hometown of Hudson Falls, New York, atop the hill overlooking the majestic Hudson River, there is a monument commemorating the liberation by U.S. forces of the horribly persecuted victims of the Holocaust, and a tree planted in memory of this 1945 World War II action, now 76 years past. It seems like a long time, but it was really just an eyeblink ago.

The Holocaust started with words. Hateful words led to hateful actions. Neighbors knew, and looked away. Did you know that by the end of World War II, 44,000 concentration camps, ghettos, and detention centers had been established by what had been considered one of the most highly cultured and advance nations in Europe? The 12-year era of Hitler and the Nazis, malevolent, criminal, and corrupt, excused and sanctioned immoral and murderous behavior. It harbored and nurtured the darkest impulses of mankind. In my talks I always prod audiences by asking how many people were killed by Hitler with his own hands. The answer is, he had a lot for help. From the murder squads of the ordinary reservist police battalions, civil servants in ‘real’ life, trained to kill families with one shot to the back of the neck each, to the good folks operating the railroads of the Reichsbahn, delivering boxcars of tortured human beings to their final destinations. The numbers people who ran the figures and devised the schedules to annihilation. The neighbors who drew the curtains as the persecuted paraded down the street, or worse, jeered and spat upon those going to their deaths.

Last week, a member of the community and his partner were attacked in broad daylight on one of the most beautiful streets in our town. The abuse was repeated this week in front of their house, more drive-by threats and harassment. He posted in a community group:

“We need your help. We are, for the first time in our lives, being harassed. On June 28, an individual attempted to hit my car head on, on Pearl St. I was at a full stop. He aimed for my car, as he passed he shouted “You f–k–g fa—t!) I was taken aback let’s say. Never have I experienced this before, especially in my beautiful Hudson Falls.”

The follow-up comments were heartwarming and reassuring of love and promises to help catch the perpetrator and bring him out from under the rock where he nurtures his insecurities. For me though, the larger issue goes beyond bringing the perp to justice. It’s that people need to know that the persecuted have allies. That our friendsthough I have only met them once, when they opened their beautiful gardens to my daughter’s high school class for their prom picturesare not alone, because an attack on them is an attack on the community. Though I don’t live in my hometown at the moment, I take this attack personally.

I’ll conclude by stating that I spend a lot of time trying to educate on the difficulties of Holocaust comparisons and pointing out the false equivalencies. There are a ton of them, which I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that I’ve spent weeks at a time studying the Holocaust at the feet of master teachers [and survivors!] at world-renowned institutions and authentic sites of mass murder. Frankly, those deep immersion dives into this study of the millennia-long causes and motivations often sparks more questions than answers, but occasionally, deep, deep revelations are possible. I’ll close with this one that concludes my 2016 book, A Train Near Magdeburg. I really did not know how that book was going to end, but a Pride parade through the streets of the City of God, Jerusalem, just brought my study of the Holocaust all full circle.

I’ll leave that essay below if you are interested. In the meantime, I’m promoting an effort in solidarity to stand against this attack on our neighbors and by extension, all of us. I’d like to see their street, and all of our hometown, really, adorned with the colors of solidarity, so I’m working with a neighbor to make them available for free if you want to show your support, for the rest of the flag season. Details here. Thanks for reading.

Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.

I reached some of my final revelations in the summer of 2016 as the writing of this book drew to a close while I was studying in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. My fellow educators and I heard from dozens of excellent scholars and presenters in the field of the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, of antisemitism through the ages, and learned from the nuanced dissections what we thought we knew about the Holocaust.

One of our final lectures was from Dr. Yehuda Bauer, who at age 90 I consider to be the godfather of Holocaust historians. Sitting six feet away from me was a man who narrowly escaped the Holocaust himself, coming with his family in 1939 to the Palestine Mandate before the window closed. He became active in the resistance to British rule, and later fought in Israel’s War for Independence. Early in his career he was challenged to study the Holocaust when few others were doing it. He mastered many languages, and it was he, after years of research, who concluded that the Holocaust was a watershed event in human history.

Today, sitting in his presence, and listening to him, I got the feeling that I was listening to a philosopher, one who also had been milking cows on a kibbutz for the past 41 years.

So the question came, as it always does—

What is the overarching lesson that we should take away from the study of the Holocaust?

To paraphrase his answer, he simply said, ‘There is no lesson, except not to repeat it. The Shoah is used, all the time, for various agendas and causes…okay, fine. But there is no lesson.’

And I think I get it. When we talk about the Holocaust, its sheer magnitude and ‘unprecedentedness’ denies us the comfort of walking away with an overarching ‘lesson.’ ‘Bullying gone wild’ it was not. Instead, he continued, ‘Maybe the real question to ask yourself, and ask your students, is this—What do you want the world to be? And then, maybe it is time to introduce them to the study of the Holocaust, because maybe the Shoah is the exact opposite of what they envision for their world, unprecedented in scope and sequence—but it happened, which means it can happen again.’


When we got back to the hotel to pack our bags and have a final evening to ourselves, we found out that for a few hours, we could not even cross the street to go back out—our hotel was now right on the route of one of the largest ‘gay pride’ parades in the world, right through Jerusalem. Security was tight; last year, a religious maniac stabbed six, and one teenage girl died here. But standing on the second-story hotel balcony, I could hear Dr. Bauer’s words echoing in my ears, reminding us that democracy is not only very fragile, it is hardly even out of the cradle in the backdrop of world history. But what sets democracy apart from every other experiment in history, in its pure form and in theory, is its defense of minorities. It doesn’t exist yet, but maybe this form of government needs to be protected, and nourished. And maybe this is what the soldiers were fighting for. The world does not have to be united, and, in fact, it never has been and never will be. We argue and we disagree all of the time. That is as it is, and as it should be. At the end of the day, we either kill each other, or we live, and let live.

We decide.

I had never seen a so-called ‘gay pride’ event before, so as I watched, there was another revelation. For over an hour, my fellow educators and I witnessed miles and miles of this parade of young and old, of men and women, smiling and cheering and singing; I’m quite sure that many participants, and maybe even most, were, in fact, heterosexual. And for me, this experience became a metaphor for our common experience here in Jerusalem—from that hotel balcony, we were witnessing what simply was a massive celebration of life. In studying the Holocaust together, we have plumbed the depths of the abyss that humanity is capable of, but not because of a fascination with evil and death; rather, it is because of the opposite, because of our commitment to humanity. For me also there is this burgeoning sense of righteousness in promoting the men who made a difference with their sacrifices in slaying the Nazi beast. And these American soldiers who encountered the Holocaust were not some kind of super-action heroes who arrived on the scene to save the day, just in the nick of time. As you have read, there was no plan, and they had no idea. What matters more is what they did when they encountered this trauma deep in a war zone with people still shooting at them, and later committing themselves in their sunset years to reaching out to others, so that, in Dr. Bauer’s words, the formally ‘unprecedented’ watershed event is not repeated. And maybe it’s time for a good long look at the world we live in today.

I have been on a journey that has consumed half the career that I never even set out to have. I have been joined by many along the way, and I thank the reader for also sharing it with me; that afternoon in Jerusalem, I parted with my educator friends with a final word in our closing discussion:

We are the new witnesses. We bear an awesome responsibility when we become aware, when we teach, when we communicate with others; now, more than ever, what we do matters, especially in entering this world of the Holocaust—because there is no past, and it is never over.

The tunnel can lead to the light.

You decide.

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