The Importance of Listening to and Understanding Stories from Holocaust Survivors in Today’s Political Climate

By Jessica Levine, Simmons University

When she first came to the United States, Holocaust survivor Mary Ehrlich thought extreme incidences of Anti-Semitism were left in the history of Eastern Europe and she wouldn’t have to face that intensity of fear and anxiety again. However, due to recent events, her anxieties are returning and she remembers, “this is how it started, hate is a terrible thing and people turn overnight.”

Only 10 years old when German Nazi soldiers, under the orders of Adolf Hitler, came into her small Lithuanian town, Ehrlich is still able to recall the specific events experienced by her and her family over 70 years ago. She remembers having a “nice life,” as a young girl, living with her parents and her brother. Her parents owned a bakery and general store, and she went to Yiddish school. Once the Germans came in everything changed, and her life “turned upside down.” They were forced to give up their businesses, walk in the streets instead of the sidewalks, and wear yellow stars on their arms. Men they considered friends became German soldiers and their small town became filled with screams and crying. Her brother, cousin, and some other boys were arrested and killed within one night.

Every night, soldiers would take children from the town under the guise of bringing them into Germany to work. In reality, the children were taken outside the city to be killed and no one knew. The fear and confusion at this time was indescribable, and no one understood why the Jewish people had become such a serious target.

Men, women, and children from her town continued to be rounded up every night, heightening anxieties and fears within her family. These fears climaxed one day when her father was taken by soldiers to be arrested and then killed. To the relief of Mary and her mother, her father was able to get free and make it back to their family. Shortly after, her family decided to run into the woods to choose where they would go next. If soldiers found them on the run, they would be immediately killed. They found their way to a friend’s house, an old customer of their store, where Mary and her family were granted a safe place to stay, but only for a limited amount of time. Her father dug a bunker in the storage room with a closure allowing them to hide, and if anyone came to the house, they would crawl in the bunker, and that was life.

Meant to last only several days, this life lasted for Ehrlich and her family for over three years. The fear never subsided. If they were forced to leave by the woman who housed them, they would have no place to go. Ehrlich came to a realization, “if you get killed, you get killed; if you survive, you survive.” This was their life, and to the family’s relief, the woman provided them with a safe place to hide while Nazi forces continued to round up millions.

Everything changed when soldiers discovered their hiding spot and brought Mary and her family to the town’s jail where they were inspected like animals, separated, and interrogated about their life in hiding. She was taken out of the jail two separate times to be brought to be killed by soldiers in a way that “takes only a few minutes, and that’s it.” At this point in the war, the Russians were making gains on Nazi forces, and the Germans began losing the war. She noticed Nazi soldiers becoming nervous about being caught and killed by the Russian army, so Mary and her family were saved from being killed and released, Nazi papers were burned, and Mary and her family were asked to testify that the soldiers were “good and did not harm them if they got in trouble.” For the price of letting her and her family free, Ehrlich recalls thinking, “absolutely.”

The Russians advanced through Lithuania and Germany, allowing Mary and her family to experience true freedom after several long years. However, they were not free from the memories of that time and the emotions waiting for them when they returned to their home in Lithuania. There was no one left in their small town, cobblestones were soaked with blood, and Mary experienced a crippling fear whenever she would go outside. By the summer of 1944, when Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania, the German forces had murdered about 90% of the Lithuanian Jews-almost 145,000 people (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

Over the twelve-year period of the Holocaust, about 11 million individuals were murdered across Eastern Europe, including over 6 million Jews, 1.1 million of them being children (American Jewish Congress). Jewish businesses were destroyed and families were taken out of their homes and separated, most were put into ghettos, and/or brought to camps or concentration facilities. Over 42,500 ghettos and camps were documented throughout Europe during Hitler’s reign, imprisoning around 15-20 million people (AJC).  

The world took note of the heinous crimes committed by Nazis throughout World War II, and afterwards, many Nazi soldiers, personnel, and officers were forced to sit trial and then be punished for their crimes against humanity. Beyond Eastern Europe, communities across the world were horrified in learning the extent of these events, and vowed, “never again.”

Despite this vow, several other genocides have occurred since the end of the Holocaust, including Pol Pot in Cambodia (1975-1979; 2,000,000 deaths), the Rwandan Genocide (1994; 800,000 deaths), and the Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995; 200,000 deaths) (Oxford). The Darfur Genocide in Western Sudan has been ongoing since 1995, killing over 480,000 Darfurians as of 2017 and displacing over 2.8 million people (World Without Genocide).

What happened to “Never Again?” In the 21st century, there have been many reports of crimes against humanity, and incidences of Anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, Homophobia, and crimes against women. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2017, there were over 1,900 incidents of Anti-Semitism in the U.S., an increase of 57% from 2016, and that number is not expected to decrease in 2018. This increase is not unique to the U.S.; global incidents of Anti-Semitism have increased, sparking familiar fears and anxieties in Holocaust survivors like Ehrlich.

Many believe this rise in hate speech is due to the culture under the current political climate where people are emboldened to express prejudice and hatred. For example, under the current U.S. administration, incidences of not only Anti-Semitism but hate crimes in general have increased. Data collected by the FBI indicates that the rate of hate crimes has risen by 17% since the 2016 election (Washington Post). Researchers at the University of Warwick suggest that Trump’s infamous Anti-Muslim tweets may be directly linked to Anti-Muslin hate crimes over the past year.

Now more than ever, lessons learned by international governments as indicated by the Nuremberg Principles and the Nuremberg Trials after the Holocaust are important to remember, and, due to recent events, they are especially relevant in the U.S. There are many who currently live in a similar state of fear and anxiety as Mary and her family due to the recent debate on U.S. immigration and refugee policy. Families like Mary’s are being separated and immigrants and refugees are being kept from entering the country or finding work. Many feel the need to carry their immigration status papers around with them in order to prove their citizenship, a process similar to the Star of David that Jews were required to wear on their arms around Nazi occupied cities and towns.

Hate crimes in the U.S. against minorities and immigrants are increasing and some are beginning to turn a blind eye, as these are becoming a new norm in today’s society. Individuals are feeling rejected by societies and communities they once found comfort and acceptance in, and some are becoming fearful of performing simple acts of self-expression. In a society where such horrendous events have happened in the past, how can we, as individuals and members of international and national communities, prevent history from repeating itself?

How do we do this? The first step to recognizing and solving a problem is admitting there is one to begin with. This can be done by exploring how hate speech and propaganda by elected officials and others in power that is Anti-Semitic, Anti-Islamic, racist, and homophobic are affecting the actions of those in our communities who become perpetrators of this violence and hate. Listening to these experiences of marginalized communities helps to bring communities together and mend gaps instead of devaluing these experiences and widening those gaps. Once this is recognized, it is crucial for community members to get out and vote, uniting in their communities to make their voices be heard by legislators. It is important to make it clear that the very individuals who are responsible for their power will not tolerate hate speech by those in power.

As we learned through the Holocaust and from stories like Mary’s and other survivors, hate speech and negative propaganda are some of the factors that led to one of the worst genocides in human history. For the sake of our generation and the generations after us, we must stop this from occurring again. Hope for this comes in the form of civil rights organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Human Rights Campaign, and Amnesty International. These groups cannot act alone; they need the support, funding, and activism of others to help them achieve these goals.

This hate and fear cannot and will not be tolerated in society today, and it’s up to this generation to make that clear. Only this way, can we ensure, “Never Again.”

Quoting Mary Ehrlich, “You have to hope, sometimes that’s all you have.”