My Turn: ‘Never again.’ Could the unthinkable happen?

  • Sara Weinberger’s mother, Irene Weinberger. She was a survivor of three Nazi concentration camps in occupied Poland during World War II.

Published: 5/17/2022 9:01:36 AM
Modified: 5/17/2022 8:59:49 AM

The evening of April 27 marked the beginning of Yom Hashoah, the day set aside to remember those who were slaughtered in the Holocaust. I lit a candle in memory of my 42 family members murdered by the Nazis. I do this each year to remember, to mourn, and to honor my ancestors.

Although April 27 has passed, the memory of the Holocaust is as much a part of me as my name. My parents raised me to, “never forget,” to motivate my brother and me to try to make sure that “never again” would such barbarism be permitted to happen.

Sadly, the cry of, “never again,” has failed to stop multiple genocides that continue today. On this year’s Yom Hashoah, our hearts turned to Ukraine, where an estimated 1½ million Ukrainian Jewish people were murdered in the Holocaust, by Ukrainians as well as Germans. The most notable massacre of this “Holocaust by bullets,” happened at Babyn Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv, where an estimated 34,000 Jews were assassinated in a 34-hour period.

Ukraine is home to one of the largest populations of Jewish people in Europe. Approximately 10,000 are Holocaust survivors (Claims Conference), traumatized again by another brutal dictator’s invasion of their country. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war claimed the life of Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova, who hid from the Nazis in a basement when she was 10 years old. On April 2, at the age of 91, she died in Mariupol, in a freezing basement without water, seeking shelter from Russia’s relentless bombing (Chabad.org).

Boris Romantschenko, 96, survived the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen. Boris died when his home was bombed in a Russian attack in Kharkiv. Such tragic stories are almost beyond comprehension (Newsweek.com).

Speaking to anyone who would listen, my mother, a survivor of three Polish concentration camps, shared her story with people of all ages. She spoke of what it was like to see her father humiliated in the ghetto by Nazis who ordered him to get on his knees, while they sliced off his elegantly-trimmed white beard and whiskers; of her 5-year-old niece, her mother, Sara, who I am named for, and her sister-in-law, all taken from her; their whereabouts forever a mystery. My mother always ended her talks by imploring her listeners to, “never forget.”

On a visit to Berlin in 2014, I was struck by Holocaust memorials everywhere. Germans are reminded of the Holocaust every day of their lives. This is such a contrast to the paltry number of memorials commemorating my own country’s history, built on a foundation of crimes against Black and Native American people. Acknowledging one’s history is key to preventing future genocides.

In the past few years, watching the erosion of our democracy has rekindled my childhood fears. Could the unthinkable happen here? The governor of Florida commands, “Don’t say gay.” The governor of Texas wants to criminalize parents who accept their trans children. The Supreme Court is empowering the state to control women’s bodies. Police continue to get away with assassinating Black people. Orthodox Jews are beaten on the streets of New York City. Black and Jewish people are murdered while praying. A violent mob storms the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, ostensibly following their wannabe authoritarian leader’s commands. Voting rights are being eroded state by state. School boards are banning books. Teaching about racism is increasingly outlawed in schools.

My parents, along with the parents of other victims of the Holocaust, including gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities, political prisoners, Roma people, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, knew how easily the slippery slope of hate can lead to a Holocaust.

Yom HaShoah also implores us to never forget the survivors of indescribable horrors who found the strength to resettle and rebuild their lives. It’s a testament to the human capacity for resilience. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s grandfather, Semyon, along with his three brothers, fought in the Soviet army against the Nazis. He was the sole survivor. Semyon gave birth to a son, who bore a child. That child grew up to become Ukraine’s first Jewish President (Times of Israel).

Ironically, Zelenskyy is defending his country against Russia, whose leader justified his invasion with the lie that Ukraine needs to be “denazified.”

The results of the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey (2020), revealed 63% of respondents didn’t know 6 million Jewish people were murdered; 48% couldn’t name a single concentration camp, and 20% of New York respondents believed Jews caused the Holocaust (Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany).

With dwindling number of aging Holocaust survivors, who will tell their stories? Holocaust memoirs like “Maus” are banned. Antisemitism is on the rise. Will the memory of the Holocaust fade, to be replaced with a false narrative that serves the aspirations of white nationalists? It’s happening in Poland and Hungary, where nationalist leaders are erasing their countries’ antisemitic histories of Nazi collaboration, and honoring non-Jews as both the victims and heroes of the Holocaust.

My mother taught me that “never forget” must be accompanied by action to fight evil and defend human rights. This is imperative not only in Ukraine, but in the U.S. as well.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column.

Jobs



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.


Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
 

 

Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy