‘We Can Not Be Sharp Enough’

This evening marks the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day/Yom HaShoah, which itself marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

By then, my mom, her sister, and parents had fled to the United States, barely escaping their home in Hamburg, Germany, in advance of a Nazi sweep of Ostjuden–that is, of Jews from the East, meaning Polish Jews like my mother’s parents. Shortly after arriving in the States in late 1938, my grandfather, whom I never met, spoke before an audience in Detroit, Michigan. Mom kept a newspaper clipping reporting on his speech:

“Admonishing Jews not to fall into the error committed by German Jews 10 years before Hitler’s acquisition of power in 1933 by keeping silent in the face of the rising tide of anti-Semitism,” the article began, “Isaac Salzberg, who arrived from Hamburg, Germany, a few days ago, told a large gathering at the Shaarey Zedek last Sunday morning that an unrelenting fight must be conducted everywhere against the spread of bigotry engendered by Nazism.”

The article quoted extensively from my grandfather’s speech.

German Jews now realize the mistake they made when they kept silent during the first days of the rise of Hitlerism. Our mistake was that we did not take Hitler seriously. . . . They chose to laugh at Hitler rather than to fight him.

By 1938, of course, the time had passed when German Jews would be heard by the German government.

This experience ought to be a lesson for American Jews. Here you have a chance to protest against anti-Semitism, to voice your indignation against atrocities. Do it: This is a great democratic country and there is a way of getting to the government. Why keep silent? Don’t commit the mistake that was made in Germany!

He commended The Detroit Jewish Chronicle for condemning the anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of the now-infamous Father Coughlin. But he added:

The only criticism I have of The Chronicle’s action is that its answer was too mild. We can not be sharp enough in answering anti-Semites.

I am not suggesting that the white nationalism and anti-Semitism we see today mirrors what my grandfather experienced in Nazi Germany. I am saying that mild opposition to bigotry isn’t worth much, and that lukewarm “tolerance” is barely helpful. These truths are as relevant today as they were in 1938, and in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

If we light a candle for six million dead without shining light on bigotry of every stripe today, if we are “mild” in our indignation, as my grandfather put it, that candle is sputtering.

The newspaper article about my grandfather noted that he “permits the use of his name because he was able to take his wife and children with him and has no other relatives left in the Reich.” That was true when written, but a year later Germany conquered Poland, and it became part of the Third Reich. Most of the Salzberg family lived in Poland, and nearly all were murdered in the Holocaust. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, then, I’m sharing a photo from earlier days of my mother, Jutta Salzberg, as a young girl (r), visiting a favorite cousin of hers, Manja Stahl (l), in Pabianice, Poland, one of those relatives “left in the Reich.”

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2 Responses to ‘We Can Not Be Sharp Enough’

  1. Lori Keenan says:

    Well said, Debbie. What we see and hear happening today is vile and disgusting, as well as shocking given what we know about past atrocities. There is nothing “supreme” in White Supremacy. Ironically, those who espouse or tolerate such movements are the opposite of “supreme.” But that does not diminish their threat to all of us and this otherwise wonderful democratic country.

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