Holocaust victims and heroes

Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Throughout the world, communities gather, albeit virtually in most cases, to remember the victims — including well over one million children; hear from survivors; and in general reflect on the liquidation of the entire Jewish culture of Europe.

The complete name of this commemoration is Yom HaShoah V' Hagvurah.  Loosely translated, it is Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day.  While the number of victims is almost incomprehensible, there were many heroes as well, brave souls who stood up for themselves and others.  There were camp uprisings like those at Sobibor, Treblinka, and even Auschwitz-Birkenau, and numerous ghettos had uprisings.

Still photograph from the Soviet film of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Hannah Szenes, a native of Hungary, was already in Palestine when the war broke out.  Only twenty-two, she volunteered to return behind enemy lines.  She was captured, tortured, and finally executed, but she refused to disclose any information.  In captivity, she wrote poetry and today is considered a national hero in Israel.

Then there were the fearless journalists and other writers of the Warsaw Ghetto.  From 1940 on, under the direction of historian Emanuel Ringelblum, they recorded the events of the ghetto down to minute details, even as the population was being starved to death before finally being destroyed, hiding the archive they created.  Much of it was recovered after the war.

These were people who refused to accept what was being done to the Jewish people without a fight.  In most cases, death was certain.

Today, faced with rising anti-Semitism, many would deny that it even exists as a separate phenomenon, preferring to lump it in with all manner of "hate."  Congress's mild, cowardly criticism of Ilhan Omar is but one obvious example.  The inability or unwillingness to block an obviously dangerous Iran deal is another.

Jewish politicians seem mostly afraid to acknowledge their fellow Jews except when they are being shielded or fawned over by the like-minded.  They will criticize President Trump, even when he is the only one who openly takes a stand against the ill treatment of Jews, cowering before people who they know, deep down, are not their friends.  After all, it's politics, you know.

The fascists of yesteryear thought that, too.  In 1920, the German Workers Party, before it appended National Socialist to its name, issued a proclamation.  Number four: "Only those who are our fellow countrymen can become citizens.  Only those who have German blood, regardless of creed, can be our countrymen.  Hence, no Jew can be a countryman."

It was essentially an early campaign plank.  They were small in number, so nobody paid too much attention. And it was a different time, of course.  But how many people today, Jews of a particular political persuasion included, would have viewed with favor other key proposals from the Nazis, like "a generous increase in old age pensions" and "creation and maintenance of a sound middle class," also calling for the state to "raise the standard of national health by providing maternity welfare centers" and to "abolish juvenile labor"?

Back to the present.  These are dangerous times for all of us in America.  How many of our civil rights will survive the post-virus world?  Freedom of assembly?  Second Amendment?  Open worship?

Maybe we'll get lucky and hang on to all of them intact.  The cynic in me — or maybe it's the realist — thinks that once this crisis has passed, some on the left will try to blame the Jews for what has transpired.

We must stand strong against everything that implies.

Jeremy B. Kay is the executive director of the Library of the Holocaust Foundation (HolocaustLibrary.org).