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Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech: Courage and Resistance in the Face of Evil

By May 20, 2019No Comments15 min read

Speech delivered on May 3, 2019, to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day at Congregation Kol Ami in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Many thanks to Leonard Zeskind for that warm introduction. He’s been the best friend, colleague, and mentor, for one could ever ask. Thanks to Rabbi Alpert and Congregation Kol Ami, the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, and Stand Up KC for bringing us here together tonight as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations.

I want to thank you for coming here tonight because I know that — in light of recent tragedies — many people don’t feel safe coming to a gathering like this. One of the purposes of white nationalist terror attacks is to destroy community. It is to divide and conquer. It is to make us feel isolated and alone. It is to strike fear deep into our hearts.

You coming here tonight was an act of resistance. It was a defiant way to face the fear together, and to show that we will prevail. So, please give yourselves a round of applause for showing up tonight in a big way. I thank you.

It’s been over twenty-five years now, but I’ll never forget a moment that happened to me just after finishing one of the first talks I’d ever given about the threat of white supremacist groups. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a smallish, older woman rushing up towards me at a very high rate of speed. “Did I say something to offend her?” I wondered. She threw her arms around me and gave me the biggest hug ever. She told me she was a survivor of the death camps. She thanked me for my work, and asked me to make sure that people never forget what she and her family had been through, and to make sure it never happens again. I told her that I would do all in my power to keep that promise. And here I am.

Courage and Resistance in the Face of Evil

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps at Sobibor, to the forests and back roads of Europe, many brave women and men resisted the rise of fascism and the terror of Nazi Germany. We must never forget.

As we pause to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, I want to lift up some of the unsung heroes who resisted Hitler. At a time of growing anti-Semitism and bigotry, we will also explore new ways of resistance.

As we remember the Holocaust for what it was, a singular, systematic act of barbarism designed to wipe Jews out of existence, I am reminded of the words of Yehuda Bauer.

In his book Rethinking the Holocaust, he wrote, “As awareness of the universal implications of the Holocaust spreads, the Holocaust becomes again—two things: a specifically Jewish tragedy and therefore a universal tragedy of the first magnitude. Human beings who were Jews were murdered for only one reason only: because they were Jews. The murderers also sought to dehumanize their victims—a matter for all humans to ponder. It is today that we have to deal with the Jewish tragedy as a general human tragedy. People of all persuasion, but especially Jews and those who call themselves Christians, need to find a language that will enable all fo them to deal with this universal issue. The warning to humankind is written on the wall: Beware and learn.”

At a time when we are literally putting kids in cages—some to their death. At a time when we are intentionally ripping families apart, and maximum cruelty has become public policy. At a time when our government is systematically dehumanizing our Latinx, LGBTQ and Muslim sisters and brothers. At a time where anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have been re-branded for the YouTube generation. At a time when the 100th Anniversary of the birth of fascism as an ideology is being celebrated by a new generation of racists and anti-Semites. We must remember the genocidal means the Germans devised against the Jews in their relentless drive for the Final Solution.

We must also learn more about the other side of the Holocaust picture: resistance by Jews and non-Jews against their tormentors.

As we’ll discuss later, the Warsaw ghetto uprising is epic. But it is not widely known that in practically every ghetto, and in every labor and concentration camp there existed a Jewish underground organization that kept up on prisoner’s morale, reduced their physical suffering, committed direct action, organized escapes, collected arms, planned revolts, and often carried them out.

A Jewish underground organization even functioned in the heart of Nazi Germany. In Berlin, the Baum-Gruppe, a group of young Jewish men and women of varied political persuasions who led anti-Nazi activities at the height of the war, right under the noses of the Gestapo. All but two of the members of this group were captured and either executed or perished later in concentration camps—but theirs is a dramatic story of heroism and martyrdom that we cannot forget.
Every occupied country had its underground; and the French had their maquis, whose daring anti-Nazi exploits are now legendary. Besides the many French Jews who were members of the maquis, an independent Jewish organization called itself the Jewish Partisan Unit of Paris.

As Yuri Suhl notes in the seminal 1967 collection, They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe, Hitler did his utmost to conceal from the world the true nature of his death camps in Poland. He succeeded in muffling his victims shrieks but he could not hide the smoke and flames the belched into the skies by the crematoriums.
Indeed the question has been repeatedly posed as to why the Allies did not bomb the crematoriums and the death camps out of existence or at least bomb the railway lines that carried victims to these camps?

What Allied Command with all its military might failed to do to halt the mass murder of Jews, the Jewish undergrounds, with their limited means and under conditions of unspeakable terror, attempted to do for themselves. And, in at least two cases, succeeded.

Treblinka and Sobibor, two of the most notorious death camps in Poland, were put out of operation by the victims themselves, thanks to successful revolts. The stories of those revolts, how they were planned and carried out were captured in, They Fought Back, and provide some of the most dramatic narratives of human struggle that you’ll ever read.
The dramatic story of Jewish resistance to Nazism during World War II has yet to be told. There is a need to tell that story now, more than ever. Both because so many of those resistance heroes have now left us, and because the generational memory of the Holocaust dims.

Indeed, a study released last August to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day found that knowledge of the Holocaust, and the extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II, is not “robust” among American adults.
Even more disturbingly, two-thirds of American millennials surveyed could not identify what Auschwitz is. Moreover, twenty-two percent of millennials said they haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it — twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

We are in danger of breaking the promise. We are in danger of forgetting.

In an age where there is a surging far-right in Europe, and right here at home. In an age where anti-Semitic attacks like San Diego, and Pittsburgh, and Kansas City are on the rise we have much work to do.
At the same time, disturbingly, the mythology that Jews did not resist the Holocaust continue to persist. Even noted scholars have made this mistake. Noted political theorist Hannah Arendt once described Jewish resistance as “pitifully small…incredibly weak and essentially harmless.”

A study of the record shows that nothing could be further from the truth.

One is compelled to reflect on Ellie Wiesel’s observation, “The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find the strength, spiritual and physical—to resist?”

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Perhaps the most famous story of resistance is that of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Between July and September 1942, over 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were forced into cattle cars and sent to Treblinka. At the time of their deportation, they did not know that their destination was Treblinka, nor did they know that Treblinka was a liquidation center for Jews. As always, the Nazis employed the Euphemism, “resettlement to the east for labor.”

Between September 1942 and January 1943, the Jews of Warsaw learned the real destination of the cattle cars and the real meaning of Treblinka. This made a difference. So, when Germans marched into the ghetto on January 18, 1943, to deport the remaining 50,000 Jews, they were met with armed resistance. Now the Germans knew that there was a resistance force inside the ghetto, and so did the Jews. Electrified by the January revolt, the ghetto population rallied around the underground. It mattered.
It could be said that long before Hitler suffered a military collapse on the battlefields of Europe and Africa, he suffered a moral defeat on the charred rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto.

But it wasn’t the only type of resistance to the horrors of the Nazis. There were many others who risked their lives to provide information that would lead to the defeat of the Nazis on the battlefield.

Trepper and Fish-Harnack

Let us shift for a moment and zoom in on some of the individuals who helped end the reign of the Nazis and stop the Holocaust. Take, for instance, Leopold Trepper, a Polish Jew who moved to Palestine in 1924, but was drawn back to Europe in 1938 with the rise of fascism. He returned to help establish one of the most important intelligence-gathering groups inside Nazi Germany.

The group, which came to be known by the Nazis as the “Red Orchestra” assisted in the escapes of German Jews and political dissidents, and for years provided both economic and military intelligence to both Washington and Moscow.
He was eventually captured by the Nazis in France but escaped. He was taken to Russia, where Stalin threw him in Lubianka. He was released back to Poland. He eventually immigrated to Israel, where he died in 1982.

Then there is the curious case of Mildred Fish-Harnack.

Mildred was born here in the Midwest, just up the road in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She attended what is now the University of Wisconsin, where she studied German Literature. She was a sorority sister and a member of Daughters of the American Revolution. When she was at university, she met the German man who would become her husband, Arvid. They married and in 1932 they moved to Berlin. Needless to say, it was a tumultuous time in Germany. Within a year, the Weimar Republic was dead and Hitler the unquestioned dictator of Germany. What started as a small discussion group in their home about the issues of the day, helped lead to the formation of perhaps the most significant intelligence network inside Nazi Germany.
When she returned to the States in 1937, most people she knew had assumed she’d “gone Nazi.”

Little did they know her secret.

She and the members of the Red Orchestra provided information on troop movements and other intelligence that was critical in helping the Allies defeat Operation Barbarossa, also known as the battle of Stalingrad.
An error by a Soviet radio operator made it possible for the Nazis to decrypt the coded radio transmissions that members of the Orchestra would broadcast into the night skies. This led to the
many of the “musicians” being rounded up and executed.

Mildred was guillotined on February 15, 1943, at the personal instruction of Adolf Hitler. She was killed in secret and in wrath. She was the only American woman executed by the Nazis as an underground conspirator.
Mildred’s last words as the hour of death approached were: “And I have loved Germany so much.”

Though she was not Jewish herself, she made the ultimate sacrifice to try to grind down the gears of the relentless Final Solution. I dare any of you to read the account of Mildred’s last moments documented in Shareen Blair Brysac’s biography entitled Resisting Hitler and not be moved to tears.

Her death came in the wake of the German defeat at Stalingrad, which Hitler personally blamed on her and her compatriots. It was a turning point in the war, one which marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis and their barbarism with a human face.
While her story is largely forgotten. To this day, Mildred Fish Harnack day is commemorated by schoolchildren in Wisconsin, and there is a plaque commemorating the struggle of her and Arvid in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin.
As we remember the Holocaust, I think back to my uncle Pete, a North Dakota Farm Boy who was among the many who stormed Omaha beach on D-Day, to defeat the Nazis. He didn’t talk about the war much. Heck, he didn’t talk much at all. But when he did, I listened. He would say things like what US Soldier Elmer Joachim about his reactions to seeing Dachau, “There may be a time, yet in this war, or later in our lives when we wonder if the sacrifice is worth all the while. The word Dachau will help us make that decision.”
We must keep saying those words. We must keep uplifting these stories. We must keep resisting. We must never forget.

We Must Resist

Coming out tonight was one act of resistance. I want to encourage you to do more. I want to ask you to join with others in actively challenging anti-Semitism and bigotry.

I could stand up here and recite the Niemöller quotation. I could tell you story after story of victim and survivor alike, who all regretted not heeding the warning signs and who wished they had done more. Instead, I will ask you to ask yourself and to ask your neighbors—what are you willing to do to resist bigotry in our time?

How many of you have a smartphone? One concrete thing you can do right now is to download the new IREHR app, Trepper: the Anti-Bigotry App. It will provide you instant updates about new threats near you. Drawing on more than four decades of experience, Trepper will provide you a toolkit for taking action, and make sure that you can your community are safe and secure. It’ll provide you a database of symbols of bigotry. And it’ll allow you to document bigotry as it happens.
You can take video and securely submit it to our team. The app now allows us to use the latest in machine learning and artificial intelligence to see if people in the videos you submit are known white nationalists.
Trepper is just one of the many ways we’re committed to helping all of us resist the rise of bigotry, and to make sure we never forget. Together we can end anti-Semitism and bigotry.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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