Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It Can Happen Here

When I was a child and I thought about the Holocaust, I was struck most by the suffocation of living in a world gone crazy. I could transport myself to that feeling of living in a nightmare, in which events I couldn't believe were happening were, in fact, happening every day. For brief moments I could imagine living in a world that chased me, and I had no where to run.

Until recently, I took great solace in believing the all-consuming, upside-down world of Nazi Germany could not happen in the United States. I saw all around me ours was a nation of reason, in which people throughout the country embraced the sanity of First Amendment rights. I recognized different people might differ about the borders of these rights. Yet even our ability to confront these disagreements demonstrated the mutual embrace of the rights themselves.

Certain events in American history challenged my view. Slavery in general and the Founding Fathers' hypocrisy in perpetuating it presented one such challenge. Lynchings presented another; here, as with the Holocaust, I empathized with the victims in the photographs I saw, imagining that among the horrible feelings they experienced as they were murdered included that drowning powerlessness of being caught, animal-like, in an upside down world. But the civil rights movement provided an antidote to lynching; an understanding that the Continental Congress could not have taken on England and slavery at the same time eased other concerns.

The unrelenting attacks on American Muslims engendered by the forthcoming lower Manhattan Islamic center, however, suggest that America may be built more on xenophobic sand than on First Amendment bedrock. A series of New York Times articles document only some of the reasons if I were Muslim I would awaken each day with a sense of dread.

One may think the Battery's Islamic Center is not a Holocaust issue. But it is. We as Jews have been very successful at pushing the borders of prejudice and intolerance away from us in America. But our success is only as strong as America's ability to provide religious freedom to all its citizens. "When they came for the trade unionists," Pastor Martin Niemoller told us, "I did not complain because I was not a trade unionist." If we are not concerned about the treatment of others, especially those less powerful or numerous, we can not be sure there will be anyone who will concern themselves with our fate when we find ourselves powerless or outnumbered. The chain of freedom girding us is only as strong as its weakest link.

As long as we do not speak out against the anti-Muslim voices, as long as we do not stand with those victimized in their mosques, as long as we entertain the slightest belief that mainstream Islam as practiced by our fellow Americans has anything in common with terrorism, we have to admit one devastating truth. The Holocaust can happen here. Its seeds are sprouting all around us.

Staying Fresh

Jim Schram, the principal in our contracting company, Winter-Schram Associates, found himself staring at a man in a picture in the camp room of the new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “He looks so much like my great grandfather,” Jim told me. It was one of those rare conversations we’ve had when the press of construction details didn’t squeeze out any other conversation topics.

The graphics displays had only recently been fitted into their glass frames, and it was the first time any of us involved in the project had a chance to appreciate their impact.

Jim’s ancestor had not, in fact, been touched by the Holocaust. “You must be accustomed to this because you see it every day,” Jim said to me, “But it’s really powerful to me.”

In fact, I was having my own experience, regardless of my every day contact with the images. I had been studying the face of a boy, just a bit younger than my own son, in a blow-up of a picture whose original was preserved in the Auschwitz Album. These photographs had been taken over two days in 1944. Nazi photographers captured a Hungarian transport as it arrived and as its human contents lined up and sorted for work or death.

For a fleeting instant the boy appeared in 3-D and seemed to bob his head. I saw him as he was at the moment the Nazi shutter snapped.

I told Jim what I had just seen, and then: “When it does become routine, that’s when it will be time to quit.”

As for the boy in the picture, we can’t measure the tragedy of his murder. Not only was he denied life; the Nazis deprived him a grave and even a name that could be remembered. But they gave him a photograph. For me and the hundreds of thousands who will see his picture, if we really see his picture, he’ll remind us we can’t quit working for a world of actors, not bystanders. A world of caring, not apathy. A world where humans can maintain their humanity.