"In the 1930s, Nazi Germany
succeeded in enforcing social death on its Jews. Gradually but
relentlessly, friends, neighbors, clients, and employers turned away
from Jews, placing them beyond the pale of German social life and
empathy. The social death of Jews was unswerving. The German "racial
community," through its complicity in, approval of, or indifference to
the persecution of these newly marked "enemies," helped pave the way
toward the physical extermination of the Jews. The social death of Jews
and German indifference to their increasingly horrific plight were
absolute prerequisites for the "Final Solution." (Kaplan 229)
It was September 1994. A little boy happily boards his assigned school
bus for the journey home. He is barely six years old. He had just
finished his very first day of school. He likes his first grade teacher
and has made several new friends on the playground. He can’t wait to
tell his parents about his day. He couldn’t know about the impending
phone calls. Angry calls from first grade parents flooded the school.
The buses had safely delivered all of the students to their homes, yet
the calls still came. Callers accused the school of putting their
children in danger by exposing them to such a horrid situation. Others
blamed the school for letting the little boy enter first grade. Children
shouldn’t be exposed to that perverted family. Callers wanted their
children in other classrooms. Barely six years old, what had the little
boy done to trigger so much fear and hate? One of the students had asked
the little boy what his daddy did for a job. The little boy responded
casually, “Oh, I don’t have a daddy, I have two mommies.” The little boy
was happy. Different was not bad, it was just different; that is what he
had been taught.
The next day, some children were mysteriously absent from school. Others
were not friendly anymore. Justin with the cobalt blue hair called the
little boy’s parents “gay” and “perverts”. On the bus ride home, Gus
heard about the little boy with two mommies. He kept stepping on the
little boy’s new sneakers to make them dirty and punched him in the
stomach. The little boy remained silent. Growing sadder, he told his
parents. Choking back tears, almost vomiting, he recounted what had
happened. The little boy didn’t want to go to school anymore. He didn’t
know why some of his classmates hated him. The little boy asked his
parents “How come?” That little boy was me.
Hitler and the adults supporting his evil grand plan focused on
brainwashing the youth into believing how dangerous and disgusting Jews
were. Trusting that everything adults say must be real, German children
quickly responded to the Nazi propaganda. In Germany, the incidents were
more widespread. Excerpts from the Fromm diary illustrate the impact
that adults had on children in Nazi Germany. “‘Aunt Bella, she said, you
don’t really seem so-so-fiendish. I told Herr Runge, that’s our teacher,
that you weren’t like that, Aunt Bella. He said we didn’t understand how
wicked you really were. (Meltzer 23) Fifty-nine years later, I
experienced some of Aunt Bella’s pain. It scared me.
Harry Kagan is a wonderful man with a graying beard, a soft voice and a
gentle smile. He has been like a grandfather to me since I was born. I
call him Uncle Harry. Born in Latvia in 1927, he immigrated to America
when he was nineteen and became an American citizen. He reached the rank
of Lt. Colonel in the Air Force during Vietnam and taught high school
and college mathematics. He is a husband, father, grandfather and my
hero. Growing up, Harry was a happy kid. He played soccer and lived with
his parents and siblings in Riga, Latvia. He was thirteen when the Nazis
invaded and separated his family. Harry’s parents, sister, and one
brother went to the larger Riga ghetto. Harry and another brother,
David, were placed in a smaller ghetto referred to as a work camp. One
sister was in America. Harry’s world was destroyed.
On December 7, 1941, Nazis rounded up the Jews in the large Riga ghetto,
took them into the forests, and shot them. Harry’s parents and sister
were among those Jews. His brother, Myrim, was taken in for questioning
by the Gestapo and never returned. Harry and David were placed in a
labor camp; a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Harry’s job was to clean the camp
commandant’s home. Harry and David survived the camp horrors and came to
America. Harry could have stayed bitter but chose a different path.
Forever the teacher, Harry gives living testament as a Holocaust
survivor in school systems where anti-Semitism is still alive and
breeding. He dispels myths, tells what really happened, and gives hope
for the future.
Harry’s story adds one more element to the reality of the Holocaust.
Stories like Harry’s and other Holocaust survivors are the components of
the broader spectrum of atrocities, bigotry and hate that was leveled on
Jews and other groups in Nazi Europe. These stories and Holocaust
history challenge us to recognize the signs of bigotry when the seeds
are planted. A racist remark, a spray painted synagogue, banning gay
marriage and the killing of Matthew Shepard are symptoms of America’s
social intolerance and violent responses to human differences. This
ethnocentric posturing is similar to what Hitler put into place to
promote his superior Arian society.
As Americans and human beings, we have a responsibility to appreciate
and protect differences. Hate crimes and other damaging propaganda will
not be tolerated. Preserving the stories of the Holocaust keeps the
victims real and gives future generations the tools to combat hate,
reject violence, and prevent the senseless genocides of people based on
race, color, religion, and sexual preferences. We must be vocal. We must
educate the community by talking about the issues and leading by
example. We must dispel myths and fears about differences by being
active in the communities that we live in. Participating in reach out
groups, peer counseling and support groups become avenues that we, as
young adults, can use to educate and prevent discrimination and violence
in our society. Learning more about the political system and using its
laws to protect everyone is paramount. Involvement on the community
level prepares us for our lifelong work against discrimination,
prejudice and violence on both national and international levels. Never
again should a people be quietly destroyed while the world covers its
ears, closes its eyes, and turns away. We must act. Jack Mandelbaum’s
words are our words to live by: “We thought that the European people
would rise up out of basic decency and defend us. Some tried but not
enough. We must never think the Holocaust cannot happen again.” (Warren
Kagan, Harry. Personal Interviews. 2000-2005.
Kagan-Birkeland, Deborah. Personal Interview. 20 Apr. 2006.
Kaplan, Marion A. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi
Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.
Meltzer, Milton. Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. 1976.
Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. New
York: Scholastic, Inc. 2001.