Holocaust remembrance is not something I or my constituents who are Holocaust survivors take lightly. After a grueling internment at the Wartha slave labor camp in German-occupied Tschenstochau (Czestochowa), both of my Polish-born parents were liberated together in 1945. The majority of their fellow inmates were not so lucky.
As a child, I promised my parents I would do everything in my power to help Holocaust survivors and to not let our world fall into the destructive grips of fascism ever again.
In keeping to that pledge I made more than 50 years ago, I recently visited Munich, Germany, and had an opportunity to visit the Dachau memorial site, where more than 32,000 Jews and non-Jews were killed. The memorial bears this inscription: “Dachau – the significance of this name will never be erased from German history. It stands for all concentration camps which the Nazis established in their territory.”
The sheer magnitude of loss was also a reminder that today, in 2014, one in four of the approximately 140,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States – 38,000 of whom live in Brooklyn, the majority of them in my district – are living at or below the poverty line. It is our obligation to ensure that every single one of these human beings, who have endured the most brutal acts inhumanity, lives out their days in dignity – not in insolvency and isolation.
To that end, I hired a bilingual staff member to help Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union apply for compensation funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. After a number of Russian-speaking survivors in my district were denied benefits due to bureaucratic snafus, my office intervened. To advocate on behalf of these Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, I met with a board member from the Claims Conference during my trip to Munich, as well as with a number of board members back here in the U.S., in order to rectify the situation and to ensure that some small measure of justice is achieved.
It is unconscionable that these survivors, at their age, should have to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
There are enough Holocaust survivors in my Assembly district to fill a small stadium. Their interests are my interests, and I believe the only way to prevent another Holocaust is to remember the one that wiped out two thirds of European Jewry.
For us in the 45th Assembly District, it is easy to remember the horrors perpetrated against six million Jews between 1933 and 1945. Services of remembrance and tribute are frequently held at Holocaust Memorial Park around the corner from my district office. The peaceful sanctuary is there for those who wish to pay quiet tribute to the thousands of communities and millions of lives decimated by Hitler’s merciless Nazi regime.
Despite the work of many to keep the flame of remembrance alive here, where the largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel resides, neo-Nazism has gained an alarming legitimacy in Europe.
Seventy years after we pledged “Never Again” – to another Holocaust, to genocide, to fascism, to widespread anti-Semitism – I, like many of you, am seeing an unsettling resurgence of this hatred bare its fangs, and not just in dribs and drabs. The same vehement Jew hatred that paved the way for the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which ripped basic civil rights away from every Jew living in Germany, is now spreading like a fast-moving cancer all over the globe.
Just two months ago in Paris, on whose streets Hitler triumphantly marched in 1940, anti-government protestors chanted “Jew, France is not yours” as well as a slogan containing an expletive suggesting that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were mythology.
And, as a twisted means of celebrating the New Year in Berlin, intoxicated youths defaced the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as graphic videos posted on YouTube attest. It was reported that not one person attempted to put an end to the revolting acts of hooliganism.
For 13 years I have sponsored a Holocaust Memorial Essay, Poetry, Performance and Art Contest in which participating students are motivated to delve into the history of the Holocaust with a full heart and an open mind.
Teachers throughout my district have instructed hundreds of their pupils to research Holocaust history, encouraged them to create profound and beautiful works of art and literature, and then inspired them to go out into the world to teach others what they have learned.
I say it often: Never forget. We must teach our children the lessons of the Holocaust. We must be watchful for the kind of devastation that results from mass hatred combined with unthinking obedience. And we must also take action and be vigilant in every way we can to prevent history from repeating itself.
About the Author: Steven H. Cymbrowitz represents the 45th Assembly District in Brooklyn, which includes parts of Sheepshead Bay, Midwood, Manhattan Beach, Gravesend, and Brighton Beach.
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