Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, February 24, 2018

There is a strip mall across the street from Auschwitz.

From the commandant’s house at Plaszow it’s a short walk to McDonald’s.

Belzec is in a residential neighborhood.

I didn’t expect that.

In 2005, when I joined an interfaith pilgrimage to these camps where the Holocaust happened, it kept surprising me to find them located, not in deep woods hidden from prying eyes, but smack in the middle of urban areas.

I assumed all this development was new, that it had grown up in the decades since the war. But our guide told me these were always residential and commercial districts. Joe Engel, a Holocaust survivor in our group, said the same thing in a different way:

“People say they didn’t know. All the camps were so close to the city. How could they not know? You could smell the ashes, the flesh.”

The closeness of death factories to places where people lived, worshiped, and shopped was chilling. It suggested that evil didn’t mind witnesses.

Saturday night, nearly eight decades after the death factories were closed, someone — more likely a gang of someones — toppled about 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. The same thing happened last week in St. Louis. And there have been dozens of false bomb threats at Jewish community centers in over two dozen states, including Florida.

When the people of Poland were forced by their occupiers to stand witness to acts of mass atrocity, each had to decide how to respond. Some acquiesced willingly. Some looked the other way. And at risk of property and life, some fought back. They hid Jews from death and smuggled them to freedom.

What Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi did last week was not nearly so dramatic or risky, but it was certainly in the same spirit of outreach to the vulnerable Other. The two activists started a campaign on LaunchGood.com, a crowdfunding website for Muslims, asking their brothers and sisters in Islam to help raise $20,000 to repair the cemetery in St. Louis.

They reached that goal in three hours. As of Tuesday afternoon, their total stood north of $140,000. Sarsour and El-Messidi say the surplus from repairing the St. Louis cemetery will go toward the one in Philadelphia — and to a fund to repair any future acts of desecration.

Why would they do this?

On their LaunchGood page, they tell a story of the Prophet Muhammad once standing to pay his respects as a Jewish funeral procession passed by. When questioned about it, they say the Prophet responded: “Is it not a human soul?”

And what greater way to honor that common soul than for members of one group of the despised to reach out to another? At a time when we confront so much of what is wrong with America, it is heartening to be reminded of what is right. Necessary, too.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a spike in right-wing extremism. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, gays, transgender men and women, all of the most vulnerable and marginalized, find themselves under renewed attack: harassment, vandalism, and even murder.

Again, no one is equating any of that with the Holocaust. That’s not the point.

Rather, the point is the willingness to see what’s going on around you, what’s being done and to whom. In the digital age, you don’t need to live across from a death camp for that. Sarsour and El-Messidi remind us that we, like the Poles once did, bear witness to a campaign of hatred. And like them, we must decide:

What kind of witnesses shall we be?

IMAGE: Rabbi Hershey Novack walks through Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri where almost 200 gravestones were vandalized. Robert Cohen / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

6 Responses to In The Face Of Hatred, Americans Can Speak Up Or They Can Look Away

  1. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be complacent any longer in the face of the resurrection of ghouls like Trump’s personae, the alt-right, and assorted ghosts of hate and bigotry.

    Strangely, the citizens in the neighborhoods established near sites of death camps. all or most would call themselves Christian.

    Now, this alone tells us that the Message of Jesus no longer resonates with them. This dissipation of spiritual values most like is due to the ever-increasing influence of materialism, with the parallel decrease in the efficacy of the status quo Religion. With the demise of Religion as a vivifying force in society, this salubrious institution has over the decades been slowly supplanted in the lives of many with a new “religion”—call it Trumpism, Racialism, Nativism, or Nihilism. Whichever of these factions of this new “religion” one subscribes to, the result is a certainty of a death of the soul—whether that death is temporary in this Realm of existence, or will haunt the person in the Next Life, depends on the degree of corruption of that person, and whether he/she is willing to correct the situation or not.

    Trump obviously is too chuckle-headed and egotistical to understand the pit of error he’s trapped in, or he just doesn’t care and isn’t concerned about what might be his eventual fate should he persist in pursuing his current path.

    The bottom line is that all who subscribe to any form of false worship such as adoration of race, skin color, ethnicity, national origin, or any other form of exclusivity, is doomed to fail and will have to endure a harsh punishment in either this realm, or in the next.

    Can anyone confidently say that they are willing to accept whatever the fate may be, as a result of false worship of symbols of hate, a personality, and/or and exclusiveness, that might be an eternal one with unfortunate consequences?

    This is the question that racists, bigots, Trump, Putin, the GOP, and Trumpists, and the rest of us, need to constantly ask ourselves.

  2. And I remember after 9/11, one of the local synagogues set up a safety corridor so Muslims could attend prayer at their local mosque. And the ones most insistent about closing down the mosque – of course it was Evangelical Christians preaching their Gospel of Hate.

    • Such an obvious dissonance with the Message of Jesus should by now be noticeable to Evangelists. But the Message was lost on them long ago. Just taking up space in a pew once a week is the definition of Christianity nowadays.

Leave a reply