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
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
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.