[Content warning: This article contains discussion of Nazi Germany, with its anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and genocidal aspects. It also contains discussion of abortion, Islamophobia, white nationalism, and the Pittsburgh shooting in relation to the above.]
This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the end of World War II. In the seven decades since, our society’s relationship to cultural and religious differences continues to ebb and flow with the political climate and current social discourses. Consistent change still remains to be seen. As we near the turn of a new decade, however, a serious issue presents itself. With the passage of time comes the inevitability of no more eyewitness accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust. The stories of these survivors are crucial to our understanding of the past in order to create a more aware and less passive future generation. Over time these talks will dwindle from first-hand accounts to lectures on the effects of the Holocaust. Survivors will be superseded by professors and experts. It is important that we remain aware of the impact and of all the lives lost during those years— and aware of the lives preserved. Understanding our decline into the events of WWII is crucial in reminding us where we came from and where we should never go again.
Us vs. Them: Defining the Enemy
Looking back into the folds of history, there is one common theme between genocides: they are motivated by fear and hatred. At its heart, genocide is the struggle between human identities. We recognize the humanity in ourselves and take pride in the factors that compose our identities, from culture to religion, origin, food, and race. These are the characteristics of ourselves that can both unite and divide us from other people.
One of the most important weapons in a time of deep division is the propaganda that creates and alienates the ‘Other.’ Creating this rift involves feeding the notion that there is a fundamental difference between people. In WWII these others were identified primarily as Jewish people. Genocide is a term that often relates to the mass killings of people, but its application can be broadened further. The United Nations defines genocide as the general undermining and restricting of a group of people. Beyond the bodily violence and killings, this was the systematic alienation of Jewish people from their society. From the early onset of the war in 1939, mandatory badges were issued by the Nazi regime to be worn by all Jewish people as a means of identification. This created a visible difference between other Germans and Jewish Germans. After the badge followed stigmatization and humiliation, which only further segregated Jewish people and facilitated their later deportation to ghettos and concentration camps.
Understanding genocide and its effects involves knowing the damage that it causes. In addition to the quotidian understanding of genocide to mean mass killings, cultural erasure is also an extremely powerful tactic in times of war. When a country pits itself against another, a stronger sense of nationality and patriotism is created. This patriotism is what inspires people to enlist in drafts. War creates and perpetuates this ‘us vs them’ mentality because an obvious enemy has been identified. It becomes obvious that one must lose for the other to succeed. Due to our social conditioning and understanding of good and bad, however, it can be hard to stomach the idea of encouraging death or destruction onto fellow human beings for your own gain. This is where propaganda becomes fearfully effective.
Propaganda, linguistically speaking, is any information or depiction that is biased or misleading with the purpose of furthering a particular, usually political, agenda. Many countries and authorities throughout human history have resorted to propaganda as a way to instill fear into their audience and to dehumanize their adversaries. This often alleviates the moral dilemma of hurting other humans, and an ‘Other’ is formed.
This struggle between ‘us and them’ is one that is embedded in us to ensure survival and is motivated by fear and anger. Many of the Jewish people in Germany at the beginning of WWII were highly embedded in their society — store owners, service providers, and noticeable members of their communities. In order to highlight them as an enemy, a division between the Jewish citizens and other Germans was necessary. This is where the genocide began — long before the horrors of concentration camps and gas chambers.
An important aspect of this plan was to undermine Jewish persons as a people and a community. In early 1920, Adolf Hitler introduced a 25-point program to a Nazi Party meeting. Along with many other claims and demands was the assertion that “only fellow countrymen can become citizens. [T]hose who have German blood…
Hence no Jew can be a countryman.”
This idea was pivotal to the Nazi regime. Identifying Jewish people as non-countrymen meant that they were the ‘Other.’ In times of war, you are either a patriot — a true citizen who wanted to see Germany succeed — or you were a traitor or spy — someone whose allegiance was ambiguous. Many more steps followed to further threaten the Jewish community in Germany.
One of such examples was the Nuremberg Race Laws that were passed in September of 1935. Two distinct laws rose from them: the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor and the Reich Citizenship Law. The first was a law which prohibited marriage and any romantic or sexual relationship between Jewish people and Germans or those of ‘related blood’, branding it ‘race defilement’, an intense crime punishable by a sentence to the camps.
The second, the Reich Citizenship Law, aimed to define Judaism as a race and not a religion. An obstacle the Nazis encountered was the assimilation of the Jewish population into Germany. Many of them no longer identified or practiced Judaism. Some had converted to Christianity and others participated in more mainstream celebrations like Christmas. To increase their visibility, the Reich law claimed that any one with three or more grandparents born into Judaism as Jewish. Even those who converted from Judaism to Christianity and other religions, or who had no religious or cultural ties to Judaism were defined as ‘racially Jewish.’ Jewish people were no longer being persecuted for their beliefs and practices but simply judged and punished for their birth and blood. These laws were significant because they laid the foundation for future legislations that would further undermine the Jewish population. They defined Jewish people as second-class citizens and “subjects of the state.”
Although the Nuremberg Laws focused primarily on defining German citizenship and Jewish identity, the Nazi regime targeted other groups and ‘outsiders’ as the enemy. African Germans and Roma people were all persecuted for their race and affiliations. Those who were physically or mentally disabled, identified as homosexual, or had mental illnesses were seen as genetically inferior and suffered persecution.
Marginalized Groups during the Holocaust
Queer communities were harmed during the Holocaust, particularly men who identified as gay. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, LGBTQIA2S+ organizations were dissolved, while approximately 100000 men were arrested and 50000 sentenced to prison. An estimated 5000 to 15000 men were sent to concentration camps, where many did not survive. Gay men were targeted by the Nazis because they did not contribute to the production of the Aryan population and they were viewed as corrupting German values and culture. The pink triangle, a symbol which has since been reclaimed, was originally intended to be worn by queer male prisoners to indicate their sexuality. The Romani, people with disabilities — particularly those with disabilities who were institutionalized — and racialized communities were targeted as well. Black communities were perceived as a threat to Aryan purity. People of colour were not allowed to attend university or apply for most jobs, even in the military. The Gestapo — the official secret police of the Nazis — forcibly sterilized many mixed-race children and adults.
Beyond the persecution of queer people was the institutional setback to sexual liberation and the study of sexuality caused by the Nazi regime. In May of 1933, Nazi officers destroyed the Institute for Sexual Science, burning their books and research. The institute sponsored research for sexually transmitted diseases, marital problems, abortion, and homosexuality. It was founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who identified as a homosexual and had fought for over three decades to decriminalize homosexuality.
Throughout the war, there were several police divisions and dedicated task forces that were aimed at identifying and punishing homosexuals. In 1934, a special crimes unit in the Gestapo was formed to compile ‘pink lists’. These were lists of potential homosexuals that the police had been making since the early 1900s. In 1935, an amendment was made to paragraph 175 of the German criminal code. The penalty for homosexuality was increased from six months to five years imprisonment. Thousands of homosexuals were interned at concentration camps. In 1936, the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion was created. The focus on both homosexuality and abortion seemed to suggest the regime was promoting a higher birth rate of their ideal Aryans. With no homosexuals and no abortions, the imagined Aryan population would thrive.
An estimated six million Jewish people died in the Holocaust. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, in 1933 the Jewish population of Europe was an estimated 9.5 million. By 1950, the population was 3.5 million. Subsequently, after the liberation of the concentration camps, the mass diaspora of the European Jewish population uprooted communities and cultures, leaving many survivors without families. The Holocaust devastated Europe’s Jewish population, driven home by the fact that in 2014 the Jewish population had since declined to under 1.4 million. It is an absolute tragedy that the wounds are still fresh now, over seventy years later.
In simple terms, anti-Semitism means prejudice against or hatred of Jewish people. Anti-Semitism did not end when World War II ended, yet there is a general assumption that Hitler’s death paved the way to its end. The idea that anti-Semitic acts seemingly appeared out of nowhere, reached their peak in the Holocaust, then virtually disappeared after the liberation of concentration camps is a black-and-white narrative. This narrative covers up the ongoing realities of anti-Semitism, one that needs to be recognized, questioned, and challenged. The Holocaust was not very long ago, yet how much has really changed?
Anti-Semitism in Current Discourse
Often, when we hear ‘anti-Semitism,’ we think of the horrors of the past, but there is a general misconception that hate crimes and legislation that allows discrimination are on the decline. In January of 2017, President Donald Trump passed Executive Order 13769, titled ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.’ This order lowered the number of refugees admitted into the U.S., suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days, and suspended the entry of people from countries that did not meet adjudication standards. These countries were identified as Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. In all seven countries, Islam is the primary religion. Approximately 99% of Yemen’s population is Muslim; Somalia 99%, Sudan 97%, Libya 97%, Iraq and Iran 95% each, and, the least of all the seven, Syria at 87 to 90% of the population identifying as Muslim. These statistics are what earned the executive order its colloquial title: the Muslim ban.
In 2017, Donald Trump defended a group of white nationalists at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, claiming that some were “very fine people.” He continued to claim that he “condemned neo-Nazis,” before insisting that not all of the protestors present were neo-Nazis.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s Centre on Extremism tracks “anti-Semitic trends every day… monitor[ing] anti-Semitic activity online and on the ground.” They reported a 60% surge in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 alone, calling it the “second-highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.
Many dangerous parallels can be seen between these mindsets and approaches to terrorism and the treatment of Jewish Germans. The Muslim ban, similar to the Jewish segregation in Nazi-occupied Germany, aimed to identify a targeted ‘Other’, labelling them as the enemy. This tactic has been used repeatedly throughout history, and despite general assertions that the mistakes and overlooked issues during the years of the Second World War are now a thing of the past, the circumstances of our present reality prove otherwise.
Mere days ago, on October 27, the most deadly attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed and seven were injured.
The victims of the shooting were:
- Joyce Fienberg, age 75
- Rich Gottfried, age 65
- Rose Mallinger, age 97
- Jerry Rabinowitz, age 66
- Cecil Rosenthal, age 59
- David Rosenthal, age 54
- Bernice Simon, age 84
- Sylvan Simon, age 86
- Daniel Stein, age 71
- Melvin Wax, age 88
- Irving Younger, age 69
It is essential that these names be remembered. It is important that hate crimes such as this are not erased and forgotten in a matter of days.
Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, including one particular crime committed against Holocaust survivor Max Eisen in July 2018. Eisen’s photograph, shown on a sign outside Beth Jacob Synagogue, shows his face captioned with the words: “We Make Holocaust Education Happen.” The sign promotes the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Holocaust education. The sign was vandalized with the word achtung, the German word for “attention.” It had been spray-painted across Eisen’s face.
During his lecture, Eisen explained the meaning; at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the loudspeaker would wake everyone in the camp with the word achtung before announcing the ‘relocation’ of prisoners. Eisen said everyone knew exactly what it meant: that the prisoners called were going to be killed. Eisen said the vandal would have known the word’s history and intended to use it as a fear tactic.
“It starts with words,” said Eisen during his public lecture on November 8.
The Max Eisen lecture was originally going to be held in the dining hall of Lady Eaton College, but was later relocated to Wenjack Theatre due to an anticipated 300 to 400 people planning to attend the event. With a capacity of 380 seats, Wenjack Theatre was packed by 7:00 p.m., a half-hour before the lecture was scheduled to start. As the room quickly filled with more eager students and visitors, five overflow rooms were made available to watch the livestream of the lecture. Over 800 people attended Eisen’s lecture, which was a truly incredible turnout. Combined with the livestream audience, the astounding number of people attending the lecture proves the immediacy and importance of addressing anti-Semitism, especially in the current global climate.
Max Eisen’s lecture appropriately took place during Holocaust Education Week, in which he was introduced as one of the last few survivors of the Holocaust in Canada.
Max Eisen, born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia (modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia), is a Holocaust survivor and Trent Honorary Degree recipient. In 1944, at the age of 15, Eisen was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where his life was later saved by Auschwitz’ surgeon, Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko. After Eisen suffered a near-fatal blow to his head from a Nazi guard, Eisen was made assistant in the surgery department, where he would clean for as long as 12 hours a day; on some nights, even longer.
During 2015 to 2016, Eisen testified as a key witness at the trials of former Auschwitz guards, Oskar Gröening and Reinhold Hanning, who were found guilty as accessories to murder and sentenced to prison.
Following his experiences in Auschwitz, Eisen emigrated to Canada, where he has lived since, now a great-grandfather, author, educator, and public speaker. In 2016, Eisen wrote his memoir, By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz.
Eisen participates in the annual The March of the Living, a three-kilometre march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The March of the Living serves to educate students and offers a silent tribute to victims of the Holocaust. For over thirty years, Eisen has devoted himself to educating Canadians about the Holocaust, sharing his experiences of suffering and of overcoming adversity.
Towards the end of his lecture, Eisen shared an essential, but often neglected message: “We need to respect each other.”
Describing the events following his liberation from Auschwitz, Eisen said, “It took me three years to be a normal person again.”
Eisen described the horrors that followed liberation; rather than a time for relief or celebration, it was a period of mourning as Eisen witnessed other survivors perish around him, from causes as mundane as eating regular food again.
Max Eisen is a physical embodiment and living proof of the horrors of the Holocaust. Having lived through it, his goal, as inspired by the words of his father is to “tell the world” what happened in Auschwitz. We should always remember what happened.