Holocaust survivors, their families, their friends, and their allies all gathered Wednesday. And they vowed to never forget.
But how can they?
How can they when the same sparks that lit the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and other extermination camps whose names have become synonymous with the kind of bottomless cruelty that only man can inflict on his fellow man, keep burning in our own time?
How can they when Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Opelousas, Sri Lanka, and now Poway have become part of our shorthand of hate?
So when Linda Schwab, a Holocaust survivor from Harrisburg, Pa., stepped up to light one of six candles commemorating the memories of those here and gone, it was hard not to be a little in awe of the strength of someone who’d lived through the worst mankind has to offer, and was still standing among us to tell her story.
Wednesday’s remembrance ceremony in the ornate reception room outside Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in the Capitol was the 35th annual observance. And it came just days after the shooting at a Poway synagogue, on the final day of Passover, that left one person dead and three more injured.
And that shooting came six months to the day after another coward opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s leafy and wonderful Squirrel Hill neighborhood, claiming the lives of 11 people, simply because of who they were and what they believed.
“Let’s be clear, on this day of Holocaust remembrance, that we cannot equate the tragedy of the Holocaust” to the shootings in Squirrel Hill and Poway, or the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, Marc J. Zucker of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition said. “But we cannot ignore the threads that connect them.”
Speaker after speaker who rose to the lectern tugged on those threads, following them back to their source, reaching the same conclusion: The only weapons we have to fight hate are education, an insistence that it not be countenanced in our midst, and the demand that the full power of the law be brought against its perpetrators.
“Bigotry advances no one … yet it is still with us,” Wolf said in brief remarks. “It’s standard to ask why the Germans didn’t stop the Holocaust. Yet here we are facing our own bigotry. And we need to ask ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?'”
That’s not mere rhetoric. Data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League drives home the need to fight hate in cold, undeniable numbers.
In 2018, there were 89 reported acts of anti-Semitism in Pennsylvania, Nancy Baron-Baer, the ADL’s regional director, told the audience Wednesday. Nationally, there were 59 victims of anti-Semitic violence last year. That’s nearly three times higher than the 2017 tally, she said.
“Fighting this kind of bigotry cannot be a partisan issue,” she said, rattling off a list of recommendations for policymakers. They include collecting better data to track acts of extremism, giving law enforcement the tools and training it needs to report and respond to hate crimes, and anti-bias education for students at both the K-12 and higher education level. A 2014 Pennsylvania state law mandates such education.
Baron called the fight against anti-Semitism and hate a non-partisan one. And, at least for that hour on Wednesday, she was right. Pennsylvania state House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican, and Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel are two western Pa. lawmakers who agree on almost nothing, but they agreed on that much.
Frankel, who is Jewish, represents Squirrel Hill in the state House. He called the shootings a strike “in the heart of my neighborhood.”
“In my family, there are liberators and death camp survivors,” said Frankel, who authored the 2014 Holocaust education law. He also helped organize a rare legislative joint session commemorating the Squirrel Hill massacre just two weeks ago.
In the wake of the shootings in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, people are “looking to their leaders and demanding to know what we’re going to do to keep them them safe. It’s our job to answer them,” he said.
Turzai, a suburbanite, fondly recalled afternoons in Squirrel Hill with his wife, Lydia, a pediatrician. On that terrible afternoon last October, he and Frankel “were best friends and saddened” by the carnage.
“There’s no room for hate in our public discourse,” he said. “There is no room for anti-Semitism in our society.”
It was hard not to despair Wednesday; hard not to wonder if we’re ever going move past the poisonous tribal loyalties, the toxic politics, the blind stupidity, and historical amnesia that too often leads to immeasurable tragedy.
The Holocaust survivors, like the soldiers who liberated them, are passing into history, taking their first-hand experience with them. They’ve transmitted their knowledge to their descendants, who have transferred it to their children.
And on Wednesday, a 16-year-old young woman named Luka Joy reminded us all of the transformative effect that knowledge can have when it’s received by an open mind and a welcoming heart.
Reading aloud from an award-winning essay on what she learned about the Holocaust, Joy, a sophomore at Carlisle High School outside Harrisburg, offered the simplest of lessons.
“If we don’t know, or remember, we won’t learn,” she said, with the directness that only a young mind can muster. “No matter who you are, you should never stand by as others suffer.”
And her plan to make sure others learn that lesson?
“Let’s make compassion part of our curriculum.”
We all could use a refresher.