My wife and I decided to utilize our Chol HaMoed time to travel to the “Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust”, located in Battery Park City in Manhattan.
We entered the city through the Lincoln Tunnel and continued southbound on West Street to the southwestern tip of the island of Manhattan where the museum is located.
Somewhere between the 9/11 Memorial and the museum, I mistakenly strayed into the right lane of the three southbound lanes.
I quickly realized that this was a right-turn-only lane and moved back to the center-lane.
I did not cut-off anyone and certainly, there was never even the remotest chance of danger of a collision.
I certainly was mistaken when I moved into the right-lane, however, besides perhaps a little confusion caused to the car in back of me, there was never any hint of anyone’s vehicle being in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the car behind me predictably began to honk.
That was to be expected and both my wife and I shrugged.
If I could have stopped and apologized I would have.
However, the honking continued.
The man then drove his large pick-up SUV parallel to my car, lowered his window and by the look of his face, I was fairly certain he wasn’t wishing me a Good Moed.
I looked at him with pity.
I thought, “this poor man is ruining his day over something so petty and so meaningless.”
He was fine, I was fine, I made a mistake, life goes on.
This man could not go on.
He turned again to me and became enraged when he saw I was not responding to his un-listened to rant.
He stuck his head out of his car window to get a good look at me.
Suddenly everything fit perfectly for him.
He recognized me for who I am proud to be.
He saw I was a Jew.
And then it happened, just minutes from the “A Living Memorial to the Holocaust”
The young white male stretched out his hand and with perfect dexterity he extended his right arm from his neck into the air with a straightened hand, thus successfully performing the Nazi salute.*
Background on the Nazi Salute:
- The Nazi salute or Hitler salute or Sieg Heil salute was a gesture used as a greeting in Nazi Germany.
- The person offering the salute would say “Heil Hitler!” or “Heil, mein Führer!” (Hail, my leader!), or “Sieg Heil!” (Hail victory!).
- It was adopted in the 1930s by the Nazi Party to signal obedience to the party’s leader, Adolf Hitler.
- The salute was mandatory for civilians.
- According to German law from 1933-1945, “Anyone not wishing to come under suspicion of behaving in a consciously negative fashion will, therefore, render the Hitler Greeting,”
- The law stipulated that if physical disability prevented raising of the right arm, “then it is correct to carry out the Greeting with the left arm.”
- By the end of 1934, special courts were established to punish those who refused to salute.
- Children were indoctrinated at an early age.
- Kindergarten children were taught to raise their hand to the proper height by hanging their lunch bags across the raised arm of their teacher.
- At the beginning of first-grade primers was a lesson on how to use the greeting.
- Students and teachers would salute each other at the beginning and end of the school day, between classes, or whenever an adult entered the classroom.
I am over sixty years old.
In my entire life, I can only recall one other incident when a person offered me the Nazi Salute.
That was in Krakow, Poland when I was walking alone in the evening after davening at the Rema Shul.
A group of young people- ostensibly intoxicated- saw me and one of them from across the street raised his hand and if I recall correctly said, “Heil Hitler”.
Krakow is less than 70 kilometers from Auschwitz.
It’s about a one hour drive.
Of the three million Jews in Poland before the war over 90% were killed, many with the active collaboration of the Poles.
In Krakow, I was not surprised by being “saluted”.
However, yesterday I was in New York City.
Jews in New York City comprise approximately 13 percent of the city’s population, making the Jewish community the largest in the world outside of Israel.
As of 2014, 1.1 million Jews live in the five boroughs of New York City, and 2 million Jews live in New York State overall.
I have lived my entire life either in New York City or within 15 miles of New York City.
I teach Torah in New York every week.
I never felt uncomfortable as a Jew in New York.
Indeed, I cannot recall experiencing any overt anti-Semitism directed at me in the over six decades of my life as a New Yorker.
However, yesterday, just a few miles from Ellis Island where millions of Jews came to escape Czarist Russia’s anti-Semitism- and within sight of the “Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust”- a nameless man shamelessly and publicly made sure I knew what he thinks of me and of the Jewish people.
In my naivete, I was surprised and somewhat shaken.
How could this happen here in New York City?
So far away from Auschwitz.
Which was so long ago.
My wife and I arrived at the museum.
As we walked towards the entrance to the main exhibit, a frightening chill went down my spine.
In large letters a sign announced the title of the exhibit: “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.”