Columns 2016

They didn’t think it could happen in Germany either

It took more than a generation after World War II for Germany to teach its children its role in World War II. Now, acknowledgement of the horrors it perpetrated is openly discussed and confronted.

For me, the moment of truth came when I visited a concentration camp/prison in Germany called Terezin. It was not a death camp. There were no ovens, no smell of human flesh burning ever filled the air. But it was a place of great evil where people whose only crime was being Jewish lived as abused animals before being sent to die.

When the camp was liberated, a mass grave was found. The government removed the bones and placed them in a national cemetery right outside the walls of the prison. Over this cemetery looms a large cross and Star of David. As our guide explained, you couldn’t tell the Jews from the Christians. So the bones were buried together. In death, we are indistinguishable.

Germany experienced what happened when hate and white supremacists took over their country. Listen to those Germans who brought the Nazi party to power and you hear frightening and horrifying similarities to the words coming out of the mouths of far too many American politicians today.

I honestly do not believe that America is as racist as some of the rhetoric heard during our recent presidential campaign would indicate. I simply know too many good and decent people who believe that that promise of America as written on the base of the Statue of Liberty is still who we are and who we need to be. Yet that was the same belief of many good and decent Germans when the Nazis rose to power. They simply could not comprehend that the rhetoric of hate would prevail.

Germans do not try to fly the Swastika flag claiming it as a symbol of some cultural heritage that has nothing to do with World War II and concentration camps. They view it as a symbol of evil that should be relegated to the trash bins of their history.

Some Americans, on the other hand, point to the Confederate Flag as a symbol of a culture and way of life that they remember fondly. Problem is, that way of life was built on the whipped backs of slaves. Scarlett O’Hara lived well because black people did not get paid for making her clothes, cleaning her house, picking her cotton and emptying her chamber pots. And if she found a slave annoying, she could have them beaten or killed. That’s not very different from the way the Nazis treated the Jews.

Yet even now, just weeks after our presidential election, the KKK holds parades of celebration and Facebook is loaded with comments that suggest the Confederate flag needs to fly again in the south, even as our top officials seriously discuss the concept of a registry based on religion and race.

I have seen the places where people were sent who had to register as Jews and wear a star so they could always be identified. We think it can’t happen here. But that’s what so many Germans thought when the process of registering every Jew in Germany was first initiated. Most of those Jews ended up in gas chambers for no other reason than their religion.

How many of us remember the lines from Emma Lazarus found on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty? Maybe it’s time to refresh our memory. It says:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            This is the promise of America and nowhere is religion mentioned. Without refugees from those teeming shores, we would not be a world power. Einstein, Edison, even Steve Jobs… all from immigrant families that brought their brilliance to America and made us the better for it. No one asked their race or religion when their creations changed our world because those things had nothing to do with it.

If we think we need to register Muslims because some are terrorists who kill, then shouldn’t we also register every white Christian male in America because they account for the greatest number of mass killings here? Some of you reading this are already feeling your blood pressure rising because I called them “Christian” as though all Christian males should be held responsible for the murderous acts of a few. But isn’t that exactly what registering Muslims in this country implies?

In two days, I will visit Dachau. I can only hope and pray that sixty years from now Europeans won’t be visiting a similar camp in America and wondering how we got it so terribly wrong.