BROOKLYN, NY — When I came to the United States in 1949 after the Second World War, the world had just witnessed the horrific culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism: the indefensible murder of 6 million Jews.
In the 1930s, we all believed that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen, and for the past seven decades, we’ve said that nothing like it can ever happen again.
But the last few months have felt like 1938 all over again, the year when Kristallnacht — a night when riotous violence against Jews swept through Nazi Germany — announced the brutal persecution to come. I’m scared — not for myself, but for my children, my grandchildren, and all children.
Some might dismiss the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, as the actions of unhinged or fringe individuals. Others might believe President Trump’s comments equating neo-Nazi and anti-fascist protesters are merely reflective of his often exaggerated speech. However, Holocaust survivors know all too well that what starts as a protest or an offhand comment can turn into something far worse. In the 1930s, the warning signs of what was to come were similar to the events unfolding today — and society didn’t listen. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.
I was born in Poland and forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto until mid-1943, when I was taken to Majdanek concentration camp and then Auschwitz. By the time I was liberated in April 1945, I had survived four concentration camps. I met my husband in the Mittenwald camp, and we lived in Germany for four years after the war before settling in Buffalo, New York.
Thinking back, it seems almost impossible that I survived when so many of my neighbors and family members perished. But the human spirit and the strength to persevere are powerful forces.
Despite all that I had endured, I was surprised to find that when I temporarily settled in Germany after my liberation, some of my neighbors did not know what I had been through. In the four years that I lived there before coming to the United States, everyone claimed that they hadn’t known that their Jewish neighbors were disappearing. How could that be?
Today, I know.
The biggest mistake that was made during the Holocaust was that people didn’t speak up. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups and nations made decisions to act or not to act. The world was quiet then, but we must not be quiet again. Now we know better. We must all commit to making the world a better, kinder and more understanding place. Perhaps it’s as simple as speaking out when you see something wrong and saying, “I know better.” But please, never be a bystander or a perpetrator.
This is not the America I came to. It’s easy to say, “Never forget,” to assume that the world has learned its lesson. But unless we move beyond simply remembering, and take an active part in standing against anti-Semitism and racism, we could find ourselves repeating a regrettable history. We all need to be on guard, resist and fight.
Five years ago, I participated in Witness Theater, a program run by Selfhelp Community Services. Through the program, I had the privilege of meeting high school students who learned our stories and bore witness to our experiences. It’s critical that we relate to the younger generation and share our stories so they can carry them on when we are no longer here. They will honor our legacy and live the lessons we shared so that “never again” can truly mean never again.
Written by Sonia K.