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!
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.”
I have five books coming out this year. I am really not particularly prolific; some could have come out last year, some next year. They’re all from different publishers, though, and each of these publishers independently decided: 2019.
My point is that I feel like I have hit the 2019 jackpot for beautiful book art. You may already know of the book that was released in January, This Promise of Change, co-authored with Jo Ann Allen Boyce, cover art by the fabulous Ekua Holmes. (Bloomsbury Children’s Books.) And now I have the art for a picture book that will be published in August by Kar-Ben Books. It’s called The Key From Spain, and it’s the story of Flory Jagoda, now a nonagenarian, who is known as the keeper of the flame of Sephardic music, as well as of the Ladino language. Flory traces her family back to Al-Andalus–medieval Muslim Spain–and then to Turkey and Bosnia, where she grew up. The illustrations are by Sonja Wimmer, and they bring all of Flory’s multiple heritages and influences to life. I’ll say again: jackpot.
What a month January was for me, my co-author Jo Ann Allen Boyce, and our new book about her experience desegregating a Tennessee high school in 1956, This Promise of Change. First, we visited schools in the Washington, DC area–thanks to An Open Book Foundation and East City Bookshop–and had our East Coast book launch at Politics & Prose Bookstore. (Those are cookies you see in the photo.) Expectations were exceeded all around.
Jo Ann traveled east from Los Angeles, where she lives, and she came with family. We planned months in advance to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, jumping on the Internet early one morning way back when to grab tickets for our crew. But then: the shutdown. So disappointing for these out-of-towners, who haven’t yet been to this amazing museum. But a friend at the Supreme Court Historical Society came to the rescue and took us on a fabulous tour of the Court–including the basketball court on the top floor, also known as “the highest court in the land.” Also thrilling for all was meeting Gary Kemp, deputy clerk of the Supreme Court. Like Jo Ann, he’s from the South, and they had some stories to trade.
Then, later in January, it was time for our book’s West Coast launch–or, rather, launches, as we were hosted first by LA’s Children’s Book World and then by Pasadena’s Vroman’s Bookstore. Both are outstanding places for anyone who loves, or even just likes, books. We met warm, interested, interesting people. We simply loved it all. And I can tell you that anyone who heard Jo Ann speak of her experience and her refusal to give in to hatred and resentment came away enriched. I know I do every time we speak.
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