An item from the Nov. 10, 1938, newspaper in Helen Waldstein Wilkes’ mother’s hometown, Cham, Bavaria. It reads: “In Brief. Jews Taken into Protective Custody. As was the case everywhere in Germany, news of the death of the German Councilor von Rath in Paris unleashed a storm of bitterness and fury against the cowardly Jewboys who are now threatening the lives of Germans abroad because they can no longer unleash their terror and hatred within the Reich. Since, by the Grace of God, we no longer have any Jewish shops in Cham, anti-Jewish action did not take place as it did in so many other German cities. However, for their own safety, those Jews still living here had to be taken into custody yesterday morning.” (Translation by Waldstein Wilkes.)
As we have sat waiting to hear who will be president of the land that was once the beacon of hope for so many, we have asked ourselves, “What can I do? Are there meaningful avenues for action?”
Election day Nov. 3, Kristallnacht Nov. 9 and Remembrance Day Nov. 11 form a cluster. For Jews who became refugees or who lost family in the Holocaust and for all their descendants, Nov. 9 has particular resonance. Peter Gay was there. Here’s how he describes it:
“Synagogues were severely damaged or totally burnt out, sacred scrolls desecrated with the peculiar elation and ingenuity that the plunderers brought to their work. Businesses were destroyed, private houses and apartments were reduced to piles of rubble, with furniture, pictures, clothing and kitchen equipment thrown around so that they were barely recognizable. There was some looting…. But for the majority, the thrill lay in destruction for its own sake.
“The world watched, disapproved, and did almost nothing. In the United States, the public’s attention was still focusing on the midterm congressional elections of November 8, and the press was busy assessing the results.” (From Gay’s My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, Yale University Press, 1998.)
For me, the parallels to today send shivers down my spine. The world must not be allowed to forget the depths to which humans can sink.
Awareness of the Holocaust is shrinking. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what Auschwitz was. A recent survey revealed that about a third of 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust.
Knowing about the Holocaust can provide a necessary understanding of how an entire population was bullied and manipulated by demagogues before succumbing to hate and fear-mongering. It can also serve as a blueprint for recognizing the dangers of demonization and incitement and help guard human rights and strengthen core democratic values.
Instead of endlessly fretting about social isolation and the threat of COVID-19, I’ve been seeking ways to make the gift of my days here on earth matter. I, a woman who calls herself “accidentally alive,” a woman who left her first home by horse and buggy, now count technology as among the miracles of my life. Recently, from out of the blue, the wife of a second cousin in New York, whom I’d met only once many years ago, decided to gather the extended family (all that’s left, thanks to Hitler and his efficient helpers) via Zoom. Welcoming me to this gathering of the mishpocha was a man in Israel claiming that his great-great-grandparent and mine had been siblings, and that he had read my book Letters from the Lost in connection with his volunteer work at a museum there. The museum used to be a kibbutz, founded by survivors from Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where both of my grandmothers perished and where most of my family suffered before being sent to their final destination, Auschwitz. Perhaps to distance itself from the German and to place upon it the stamp of renewal that Israel became for these lost souls, the kibbutz was named Beit Terezin.
Together with David, this fourth cousin in Israel, I am building a pathway for keeping alive that which we forget at our peril. Please, if you can, go to jgive.com and search for “Letters from Arnold.”
Using artwork and graphics contributed by those early survivors in Beit Terezin, alongside the words of my beloved Uncle Arnold, who spent 17 months in Theresienstadt before enduring the hellfires of Auschwitz, we hope to create a book that will find a home in every Holocaust museum in the world. If finances permit, we will use technology to bring the contents to life in new ways so that those who cannot visit a Holocaust museum in person nonetheless can receive our reminder that it must not happen again. Never Again.
I urge you to visit our website. And if you’d like to do an additional mitzvah, please forward the link to contacts near and far whose family members may once have lived through the hell of Theresienstadt – or worse.
Born in a country that no longer exists at a time hopefully never to be repeated, Helen Waldstein Wilkes describes herself as “accidentally alive” because she, too, was marked for eradication. Now an energized octogenarian with a richly rewarding life, she is author of two award-winning books, The Aging of Aquarius, an uplifting book that encourages people to live their passion by striving to effect change for the better, and Letters from the Lost (also available in German and Spanish translation), a moving memoir of how a box of letters from prewar and postwar Europe changed everything.