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Article 9
Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday, April 2, 2000

Remembering the Holocaust and society’s divided past
John J. Neumaier

On the day of the Anschluss in March 1938, when Nazi Germany invaded and annexed Austria, one of the observers in the streets of Vienna was the young scholar Gisela Konopka. She remembers with horror how the crowds cheered the Nazi troops as they marched through the city. Now retired, Professor Konopka was recently honored on her 90th birthday by the University of Minnesota for her decades of academic achievements and humanitarian contributions. A Minneapolis Star Tribune story about her life included quotations from an article she had written about the anti-Semitic violence in Vienna: “I walked through all this like a person dream-walking.... Most Jewish people did not enter the streets. I was so sure I would be dead soon that I felt no fear, only numbness.” She said to herself that “if I ever get out of this I must shout, I must tell, I must never, never forget.”

Having personally experienced the Nazi persecution of Jews, I can fully empathize with the strong feelings of Gisela (a former colleague of mine). In that same year of 1938, I witnessed, as a teenager in Frankfurt, the ghastly pogrom of November 9-10, Kristallnacht, the night of the burning of the synagogues. On the morning after, I was one of the few Jews who went downtown (disregarding my mother’s pleas). Wandering about, I observed at first-hand the cruel humiliation of Jews, the Nazi acts of brutality, and the wanton destruction of Jewish property.

Each spring of the year we commemorate the nearly six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Nor do we forget the victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazi tyrants which occurred in April 1943. It would be strange and unfeeling not to commemorate this tragic past. In my own case, the killing of my mother at the Majdanek death camp, and of my aunt’s family in Vienna, and other relatives in Germany and France, is an ever present reminder of the systematic murder of European Jewry.

It is only by extensive reading about that terrible period and by visiting Holocaust museums here and in Europe that I have come to a fuller knowledge of the horrible fate suffered also by millions of non-Jews at the hand of Hitler’s henchmen. Even today many people are still unaware of the massive Nazi crimes committed against Gypsies, homosexuals, the physically or mentally handicapped, political opponents, and non-conformists.

Human history up to the present confirms that most people empathize with members of their own ethnic, religious, or national group. It is more difficult to find people willing to extend such feelings to fellow human beings whose ancestry, cultural background, or color differs from their own. Unhappily, our indifference to the suffering or oppression of those who are seen as outsiders, is often worsened when the acts of oppression can be attributed to our own forebears.

There is the related problem of wrongly assuming that if people have a common heritage or fate they must therefore be of the same mind and have the same feelings. While I can and must speak out against the horrible evil that was done to the victims of the Holocaust, I cannot presume that I am speaking as they would have.

Still, in spite of the inevitable differences which exist among individuals, it continues to be a common practice to stereotype ethnic groups. Thus, many Jews care deeply about the welfare of the state of Israel, especially because of the role it has played as a safe haven for victims of the Holocaust and for the great numbers of Jews who have been persecuted through the centuries for their religious or cultural heritage. Yet the fact is that Jewish as well as non-Jewish citizens of Israel, like people in other countries, often differ with each other over what their state should be like and what policies their government should adopt. Actually, there are probably more overt policy disagreements among Israeli Jews than is apparent among American Jews.

An example of disagreements among Jewish people, here as in Israel, is in their attitudes toward Palestinians and Arabs. And just as opinions and values vary and change among Jews, so they do among Arabs and Palestinians. Contrary to what we might infer from the media, many Jews feel that Semites of Arab descent are just as valuable human beings as are Jewish Semites. Regrettably it has proven very difficult to put such feelings into action to relieve some of the great injustices that have been committed against Palestinians and Arabs, or for that matter, the injustices that have been done against Jews. We make a good beginning when we recognize that all of us share a common humanity and that only when the security and welfare of all groups are ensured can there be real peace and mutual understanding. This is not to ignore how difficult that path has proven to be in a world full of injustice, conflict, and mutual suspicion.

But we need not look only abroad to see terrible divisions that keep people apart and hostile toward each other. On this continent, after the Europeans had subdued the Native American tribes, it was the African Americans who became the most oppressed group. Just as other groups remember and mourn the persecutions suffered by their foremothers and forefathers in various European, Asian, and Latin American nations, so do African Americans, whose ancestors were enslaved and shipped to these shores by the millions. Uncounted victims did not survive the inhuman conditions of the slave ships. And millions of succeeding generations of African Americans were born from the unions that slave holders forced upon women for breeding purposes and sexual gratification.

As a major segment of American society African Americans are far more aware of this bitter history and of the discriminatory hurdles they still face than are most of their lighter-colored fellow-citizens. While white supremacy is no longer the law of the land, there are still today all too many signs of its lingering presence. African Americans continue to struggle for equality as citizens, especially for access to economic opportunity and educational advancement and for full recognition of their contributions in building this country. As I contemplate the great progress which has been made in informing the American people about the genocide against the Jews - through educational programs, legal actions, Holocaust museums, a vast scholarship in Jewish and Holocaust studies, and by clarifying the historical record on how Jews have been defamed - I hope for and anticipate the establishment of an increasing number of African American museums which will commemorate the period of slavery and educate people about past persecution, discrimination, and the continuing struggle for civil rights. The establishment of a national holiday, celebrating the memory and contributions of Martin Luther King, and the gradual recovery and recognition of the bloody history of racism are vivid examples of a changing America.

No doubt social conflict will continue. Progress in combating ethnocentrism goes forward unevenly. Clearly it is made more difficult and complex by the daily competition for jobs, for school dollars, for affirmative action, for a chance for Black Americans to overcome past and present discrimination.

What we must continue to struggle for is a society which transcends invidious comparisons as to which persecuted group suffered more than another. The more we are willing to empathize with each other and to learn about our diverse histories as well as our common pasts, the closer we will come to our goal of social and economic justice for all.

Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.