When I heard White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer say, first, that Hitler never stooped to using chemical weapons like Assad did in Syria, and then, as a clarification, that Hitler never used the gas “on his own people,” I was deeply offended and outraged. On Passover, Spicer erased the entire history of my ancestors, all German Jews, who were, in fact, gassed on the orders of their countryman and leader, Adolf Hitler. I would not exist – my parents would not have met – if not for the threat of Hitler and the fact that all four of my Jewish grandparents made it out of Germany alive. Are Spicer’s comments the result of a stunning ignorance of history, which makes him completely unfit for his position? Or are they evidence of a more sinister, racist belief that German Jews were not really German, that they were not “Hitler’s people,” and thus can’t be compared to Assad using chemical weapons on fellow Syrians? Either way, Spicer should be fired immediately.
My maternal grandmother had a saying she often repeated at our family gatherings: “Hitler didn’t get us all.” Always at the front of her and my grandfather’s mind was the fact that they had escaped Nazi Germany when so many others hadn’t; Jews refer to this as “survivor’s guilt.” They fled Germany in May 1938, already quite late: in October 1938, all passports held by German Jews were invalidated and Jews were ordered to turn them in to have a “J” stamped on them. Miraculously, even with a marked passport, my great-grandmother escaped Germany in August 1939. Her husband never made it out. He wasn’t sent to the camps; he had already committed suicide in 1936, largely due to the progressive stripping away of Jews’ rights once Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, and the fact that his importing business had been taken away from him. His brother died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My grandfather’s father, also an entrepreneur who lost his business to anti-Jewish laws, died in the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942, because the boat he was supposed to leave on was postponed.
My family history is rare, in that both of my parents are children of German Jewish refugees. My father’s parents each left Germany much earlier, in 1933, and met in the U.S.; they saw the writing on the wall and knew their professional futures were in jeopardy. My great-grandfather had been a very successful banker who was eventually stripped of his position because he was Jewish. But he had the foresight to get out in 1934, and, unlike most Jews, was able to take some of his wealth with him. However, three of his siblings and their families and dozens of distant relatives perished in concentration camps, information that was unearthed by my genealogist cousin. Both of my paternal grandparents went on to have successful careers as law scholars. Among my grandfather’s many accomplishments was his return to Germany in 1945 as part of an American legal team sent to examine Nazi documents for the Nuremburg war-crimes trials.
My maternal grandmother, who helped raise me and with whom I shared an incredibly deep bond until her death in 2014, would sometimes talk about the experience of living as a Jew in Nazi Germany. One of the things she emphasized was the gradual stripping away of rights Jews faced under the Nazis, the fact that there was a years-long build-up to the “final solution.” Her father was a casualty of these anti-Jewish laws; he couldn’t bear the fact that the business he had built was stolen from him. Like many German Jews, my grandparents’ families were not particularly observant in terms of their Judaism. They were deeply assimilated into German culture, and had become quite successful, in many cases by shedding their “otherness.” Their successful assimilation was precisely why so many Jews stayed until it was too late – Germany was their home, and few imagined that something like the Holocaust was possible, that their neighbors could become complicit in Hitler’s genocide.
The Holocaust didn’t just happen overnight; it was enabled by regular Germans who allowed themselves to be swayed by blatantly racist nationalism. Spicer’s erasure of the genocide of German Jews by their leader – whether accidental or intended – is one more in a string of Holocaust denial statements by the Trump administration. The President’s senior advisor, Steve Bannon, has been repeatedly linked to anti-Semitism, and Trump himself has refused every chance offered to him to rebuke white supremacist supporters like David Duke. Let’s be clear: having a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted is about as indicative of a lack of anti-Semitism as having a “black friend” is for white people trying to counter charges of racism.
I would not be honoring my dear grandmother’s memory if I didn’t learn the lesson she taught me about how the seemingly slow, but very insidious, stripping away of civil rights can eventually lead to genocide and/or mass internment. I have no doubt that a repeat of the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans is possible under this administration, with Muslim-Americans and undocumented immigrants facing the biggest threat. As Jews who now enjoy the benefits of white privilege, but who were once society’s despised “other,” it is our moral obligation to refuse to be complicit in racist scapegoating. Hitler did not consider German Jews to be real Germans, despite their extraordinary economic, cultural, and intellectual contributions to the country, represented by Albert Einstein, Gustav Mahler, and my own grandparents (for example, see here). The “MAGA” phrase that is symbolic of Trump’s agenda is dangerously close to echoing Hitler’s idealized Aryan society, and Spicer’s sanitizing of the Holocaust (on Passover no less!), with no repercussions for his job as of yet, is evidence that this administration cannot be shamed into doing the right thing.
Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and independent scholar with a PhD in ethnomusicology. She has written extensively about Cuban music and society and is currently focusing on pop culture criticism.