Charlottesville, WWII Hungary, and the Eruption of Hate
Right now, many of us are in shock, outraged, furious. How could an event like yesterday’s Neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA happen? It’s the 21st century. Aren’t we beyond this? Hasn’t humanity evolved, learned from past suffering and atrocities?
And behind that anger and disbelief is pain–pain that is hundreds, if not thousands of years old.
It’s the pain of pogroms and lynchings, the pain of segregation, of legislated discrimination and socially condoned denigration. It’s the pain of knowing that our ancestors suffered brutality, enslavement, and murder. It’s the pain of constant and institutionalized bigotry in a variety of forms. It’s the pain of experiencing these things ourselves, in our own lives, and the pain of empathizing with the continuing traumas of those we care for.
I’m talking about antisemitism and racism and homophobia and anti-islamism and xenophobia and misogyny, and all of the other forms of intolerance that have long existed, but are recently emboldened by the president of the United States and his “Make America Great Again” ideology.
Failure to Evolve
Eugen Schoenfeld lived in the town of Munkacs (Mukachevo, now in Ukraine) before his deportation to Birkenau concentration camp. In his memoir, My Reconstructed Life, he wrote, “I had never thought that, now in the middle of the 20th century, a time that was post-Enlightenment when Europe had experienced democracy, we would be forced to wear a yellow armband, the symbol of shame and denigration.”
He, too, could not believe that in his day and age, humanity had not evolved enough to know right from wrong.
Now, it’s the 21st century, and we find ourselves in a place with shocking similarities.
The atmosphere feels heavy. The air feels thick, unwelcoming.
School Bus Antisemitism
My children experienced two separate incidents of antisemitism last year.
On the bus, my fourteen year old son bravely declared his Jewish identity in the midst of an antisemitic rant by his classmates. The leader of the group’s response was to declare, “We found one!”
In the middle of an independent work period in class, a student played a song on his phone that incessantly repeated “Adolf Hitler.” The boy refused to turn it off when my younger son asked him, resulting in a physical altercation.
If ignorance were the only reason for these incidents, it would be a crime that these children didn’t know better. However, these children obviously didn’t invent these concepts. They picked them up likely from their families and definitely from the racist and antisemitic rhetoric that has crept into the headlines, emboldened by the current president.
Institutionalized Discrimination and the Eruption of Violence in WWII Hungary
Uncle Steve said he was not aware of antisemitism until he was barred from entering university in what was then Czechoslovakia. He lived in the small town of Svalava, which had a large Jewish population, with two synagogues. The next town over, Munkacs (Mukachevo), was a major center of Jewish culture and life.
People of a variety of cultures, religions, and languages lived together in Svalava for a time between WWI and WWII in peaceful co-existence–more than that–interdependence. They depended on one another for their daily needs and their livelihoods. They worked together to make good lives.
Uncle Steve said the Jews in his community didn’t believe they would be taken to Auschwitz. By then, Hungary, allied with Germany, had claimed the area. A variety of antisemitic laws had been enacted, including some that had forced my great grandfather to close his business and move to Munkacs. Still, they thought, surely Hungary would not allow them to be transported to their deaths in Auschwitz.
But it was Hungary that carried out Hitler’s Final Solution inside its borders.
“The ‘final solution of the Jewish question in Hungary’ got under way with a speed and efficiency surprising even the Germans: between mid April and late May practically the entire Jewish population of the countryside was ghettoized and, in the largest deportation operation in the history of the Holocaust, between May 15 and July 9, over 437,000 people (with the exception of 10,000-15,000) had been transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau,” writes the National Committee for Attending Deportees (DEGOB).
Included among those transported were my great grandparents, Moritz and Rosa, my aunt Erika, my uncle Peter, and my great aunt Lily and her daughter, Judith. They all perished. Separately, my grandfather Zoltan was transported to Auschwitz, which he survived. He’d been Rabbi at the Status Quo Ante Synagogue in Eger, Hungary, when his entire community was transported.
A Story for All People
The story of the Holocaust is a human story. From its pages, we have the obligation to learn. No one has any excuse not to know better after these events.
I write the story of my great uncle not only for me, my family, and my community, but for all communities subject to prejudice and injustice, including the Jewish, Muslim, Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities, and others subject to discrimination and persecution, including women.
Though I wish every person and experience had a voice, I can’t give an account of every act of discrimination, every brutal event. It would not be right for me to try to speak for someone else. But I can tell the story of my ancestors, and dedicate it to the cause of respect, dignity, equality, and safety for all people.
Events like the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA on August 11, 2017 wake us up to the reality that hate is alive–and has been for a long time. It is the duty of our communities and our culture to keep this potential in check–with justice, education, dialog, and critical thinking–and with stories that remind us of our common humanity and the disastrous results for all when we forget.
Because we are human, we are obliged, as a species, to embrace one another in all of our variety and difference, to live together, interdependently, to make good lives.
Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash
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