I, the Son of Holocaust Survivors, Thought I'd Live to See anti-Semitism Vanish

Seventy years after Auschwitz was liberated, European anti-Semitism has reemerged – like diseases that return because parents were lax in immunizing their children.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman
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A watch tower along a barbed wire fence at the memorial site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, in Poland, January 26, 2015.Credit: AFP
Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.
Samuel Heilman

I am an only child of Holocaust survivors. My birth, after the war, in Germany, where my Polish-born parents had gone after finding almost their entire families wiped out in Poland, was in a way a sign of their trust in a future where Jews could be safe.

It took real courage for them to start again, for my mother to go into a German hospital in Karlsruhe, where I would be the first Jewish child born after the Nazi firestorm, and trust the same people who only a year before were still killing Jews would now help them be born.

We lived in Germany for nearly four more years, my father having been appointed by the Americans as an executive in a German textile firm. The life was good. We had a chauffeur, five cars, a cook, and a live-in nursemaid for me. Things were so good that when my father decided to leave it all and move to America the moment I reached school age so that I would not be the only Jewish child in the German kindergarten, my mother was reluctant to move. But they did and started over again in America where my father started out as a seventy-five-cent-an-hour shipper in another textile firm and my mother as a night waitress in Boston, where I grew up.

The anti-Semitism that my late father was certain would come back to Europe would, he also believed, stay far from Boston. Now Boston was not free of Jewish hatred, but there was no institutional or state anti-Semitism there and Jews were safe. In Israel at the time there was war and the threat of more, and my parents were not ready for that again. While I heard stories of the camps and the ghettoes of Poland, of annihilation and near death, I grew up, like so many American Jews at the time, thinking that anti-Semitism would disappear completely in my lifetime. And the more I learned about Jewish persecution in history, the more I marveled at the golden age in which I grew where Jews were secure. After 1967, my Zionism awoke – something that had begun to stir already during the Eichmann capture and trial. Jews were closing the door on those who sought to destroy them, and were even being hailed by the world. In some parts of Europe, anti-Semitic expressions were against the law and few openly acted against Jews. Was it possible that even Europe could be healed of its centuries-long Jewish hatred?

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day in 1945 that Auschwitz, where my mother was an inmate, was liberated. Seventy years later, however the sickness of European anti-Semitism has reemerged, like those childhood diseases that have come back because parents have been lax in giving their children the immunizations that could prevent them. In the name of freedom of expression or political correctness, Europeans have allowed anti-Jewish expressions and acts to have a voice. First it was among those who oppose Israel – simply a political statement. Then it was among those who championed the Palestinian cause – an opposition to occupation. That the entire Jewish people were fair game for what happened in Israel seemed to pass unnoticed. Acts of violence that targeted Jews in Paris or Stockholm or other places in Europe were condoned because of politics in the Middle East, or in an effort to satisfy the large Muslim populations that became part of the European demographic population. Synagogues on the continent had guards stationed in front of them. In some places they remained unmarked and no stranger was let in. Jewish schools became endangered, and, as we have seen most recently, community centers and even Jewish markets became targets of the haters. People were afraid to wear a kippa on their heads.

Before we noticed it, Europe was awash with prejudice against Jews, and acts of terror and violence were growing common. In less than a generation, the anti-Semitism in Europe that my father feared is back. Government leaders still speak eloquently against it: in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere – except in Istanbul. But make no mistake, the virus of hatred is again infecting Europe. This time, however, the Jewish state is there to take them in.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. 

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