My Turn/Hattie Nestel: Defeating Hitler didn’t put an end to anti-Semitism


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

I was born in 1939 into a Jewish family in Philadelphia. My earliest memories involve drawing down the shades when air sirens blew and waiting until the all-clear siren let us go back to bed. Much later, I learned that World War II plane spotters had warned us of a possible enemy attack — from Nazi Germany.

Another early memory concerns going to our local movie theatre and watching newsreels that included seeing and hearing Hitler and his armies lined up giving the Nazi salute. It so frightened me, my mother put her hands over my eyes so I didn’t have to watch. I knew my parents worried about something, but they always whispered to each other. I knew they didn’t want me to know about their concern. Sometimes, instead of whispering, they spoke to each other in Yiddish so I couldn’t understand and be frightened by their conversation.

When I was 6, the war ended with roughly 6 million Jews DEAD! Men old and young; pregnant women, mothers, grandparents; rich and poor people; infants. Nothing stopped the Nazi killing when some trace of Jewish ancestry could be found. I’m not sure if I realized what had happened when I was 6, but once I put two and two together, I knew what my parents had been hiding from me.

Although World War II ended for some, for many of us, it has never ended. The new normal meant and means knowing what happened within my parents and throughout my lifetime. For Jews, anti-Semitism began thousands of years ago, culminating with the World War II Nazi regime and persisting in our own time and place in Charlottesville and other world and American locales amid our century’s notable rise in anti-Semitism.

Deeply embedded in my psyche, the Nazi annihilation of a third of world Jewry persists as a nightmare that I have no doubt could recur, even in my lifetime.

When I was an adult, my mother gave my best friend, Judy, and me a book written in 1947 about the war. She told us it was a “must-read.” So Judy and I read “Blessed Is the Match” by Marie Syrkin, the history of the Holocaust as told to her by survivors. What a daunting experience to read “Blessed Is the Match.” From that time on, I never stopped reading Holocaust literature and never stopped questioning how and why it had happened.

I could hardly believe my ears when I heard the news in August, 2017, about the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The demonstration focused on both anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. Demonstrators chanted “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” Marchers wore shirts depicting Adolf Hitler, displayed swastikas on banners, and shouted World-War-II-era slogans like “Blood and soil!”

Jews at prayer in a Charlottesville synagogue saw men in fatigues standing across the street with semi-automatic rifles. Nazi websites posted a call to burn the synagogue. Congregants quickly removed the sacred Torah scrolls and exited through the back of the building.

It could have been an episode from the Holocaust, but it happened in early 21st-century America.

I felt profound sadness.

My own synagogue drew me like a magnet, and I found myself sitting in the temple as unstoppable tears flowed down my cheeks. When I had exhausted myself and my tears stopped, I left not knowing how to relate to the assault on me and fellow Jews.

The Anti-Defamation League defines anti-Semitism as “the belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish.” It continues:

“Hostility toward Jews dates to ancient times, perhaps to the beginning of Jewish history. From the days of the Bible until the Roman Empire, Jews were criticized and sometimes punished for their efforts to remain a separate social and religious group — one that refused to adopt the values and the way of life of the non-Jewish societies in which it lived.”

One must remember that, although the active extermination of Jews didn’t begin as a wide-scale methodology until the 1940s, the rise of Nazism seeds had been planted in Europe from the time of Constantine’s reign in the fourth century, often flourishing and resulting in ghettoization, exile, and death for hundreds as the centuries proceeded.

Anti-Jewish pogroms, violent riots aimed at massacre or persecution of ethnic or religious groups, trace to records from as early as 38 CE. Throughout the following centuries, most related to Jews, but not only. Recent pogroms target Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and despised ethnic minorities throughout the world.

With the defeat of Germany and imposition of reparations at the end of World War I, anti-Semitism spread with vengeance and virulence. Nazi Germany announced its profound anti-Semitism with the malicious pogrom called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” in 1938. At least 91 Jews were killed and another 30,000 arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps. More than 1,000 synagogues were burned and 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged throughout Nazi Germany.

The common denominator of the war(s) against the Jews was anti-Semitism. Why it exists, what will come of it, and how to change its trajectory are unknown, at least to me.

How will rising American anti-Semitism play out?

Would some version of what happened in Nazi-occupied Europe happen here?

How many more Charlottesvilles will we witness?

How many more Jewish cemeteries or memorials will be destroyed?

What reaction will I get when people notice the Jewish star I wear around my neck?

What did people feel when my reply to their “Merry Christmas” was “No, I am Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas or Easter or other Christian holidays”?

Should I worry when a Jewish family decorates the outside of its house for Hanukkah and not Christmas?

How do Jewish children feel when they have days off from school for Christian holidays but do not have days of from school for Jewish holidays?

I know that Charlottesville happened and that there has been a subsequent rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and other areas of the world as well.

The Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield and chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, issued the following statement in February, 2017, on behalf of the bishops in response to the rise in anti-Semitic actions across the US.

“I want to express our deep sympathy, solidarity, and support to our Jewish brothers and sisters who have experienced once again a surge of anti-Semitic actions in the United States. I wish to offer our deepest concern as well as our unequivocal rejection of these hateful actions. The Catholic Church stands in love with the Jewish community current face of anti-Semitism.”

I am most thankful to Bishop Rozanski and America’s Catholic bishops for reaching out to the Jewish community. It takes some of the isolationist pain away to have such concern so graciously given.

There may be other denominations that have reached out to Jews, but I am not aware of them. Prayers are always appreciated and helpful.

Hattie Nestel, a peace activist, lives in Athol.