Werner Reich was a boy in Germany when Adolf Hitler became chancellor of his native country in 1933. Many people who were not alive to grasp the horror World War II believe the Holocaust began after Germany started World War II by invading Poland in 1939. But for Mr. Reich, the Holocaust began within six months of Hitler taking office.
In his first six months in office, Adolph Hitler urged Germans not to shop at Jewish-owned stores or to hire Jews. He decreed that Jewish children were causing overcrowding in classrooms and banned them from attending school. Mr. Reich’s family fled for Yugoslavia that year, nearly a decade before he would be captured and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which nearly killed him.
Mr. Reich has been sharing his horrible story with the world for decades now, but this story took on a rare urgency this year, at a commemoration in Cutchogue in late January of the 75th anniversary of the freeing of the prisoners still left at Auschwitz.
We’ve thought we’d seen a lot of ugly racist sentiment in this country in the past three years, but the quickening pace of antisemitic hate crimes in the New York area in the past several months has been a shock. We weren’t surprised to see the police guarding the parking lot of the Cutchogue Presbyterian Church to protect attendees as we walked into the observation of Holocaust Remembrance Day. But this is something that should surprise us in a free nation.
It has long been said that persecution may begin with one group of people, but it never ends with that group. A society that abandons its moral code to treat Jews unfairly will unfailingly treat other groups unfairly as well.
In Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, many other people were exterminated at the same time the Nazis were exterminating Jews. The victims ranged from journalists to priests, from elderly people to the very young, from homosexuals to the handicapped to Romas and people of mixed German and African blood. What they had in common was their perceived inferiority in the eyes of the Third Reich.
In a recent poll of Europeans, 1/3 of people said they knew ‘little or nothing’ about the Holocaust. Among American millennials, 2/3 do not know that Auschwitz was a death camp. As the world marked the 75th anniversary of the freeing of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, we have lost so many people who have first-hand knowledge of these crimes. How can we say “Never Again” when we can’t even promise to never forget?
We will always be judged as a nation for how we treat the weakest among us. We’ve made great strides since the Civil Rights movement to make this the equitable country it has promised to become since its founding.
But the spirit of the latter half of the 20th Century is under attack from every angle, and we have already begun to accept as normal some of the classic signs of a society teetering on tyranny.
For people of the Jewish faith, the concept of tikkun olam, translated as “healing the world,” is one that many engage in every day. This concept urges us to be present with the realities of the brokenness of the world, to bear witness to its brokenness, but then, in spite of this, to work to repair the damage. This may seem like too large a task for any one person to bear, but like any project, when undertaken alongside other members of a group, a community, a town or a nation, it is really not so large a burden on each of us.
It is time now for all of us to step up and heal the world.