Monday, May 8, 2023

A Visit by Shalom Yisrael Puts Focus on the Past

 In case you’re wondering where my acerbic wit and incisive commentary have been hiding these last few weeks, let me assure you I have not been practicing my Rip van Winkle impression. 

Rather, for the last two weeks I have been engrossed in Shalom Yisrael of Westchester’s post-Covid reconstituted program of bringing deserving Israeli women to New York and Washington for a fortnight of touring and, more importantly, relationship building between Jewish communities. 

This year’s six-pack of guests came from northern Israel, near the Lebanese border. All but one retired, they all stay active by volunteering at the local regional hospital, Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. The youngster, at 50, supplements work and hospital duties by being an EMT Ambucycler. “Ambucycles are regular motorcycles used by United Hatzalah volunteers throughout Israel to make sure they get to emergencies within the first few minutes,” often before ambulances can arrive. 

Since 2010 I’ve been involved with Shalom Yisrael, with Gilda sometimes housing a guest, hosting a buffet dinner for participants and SY volunteers, but mainly coordinating a three day trip to Washington, DC. 

The Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, a tour of the Capitol, a stop for pictures at the statue of Albert Einstein, and visits to several Smithsonian pavilions. I’ve been to the National Holocaust Museum more than a dozen times. 

Each visit I am impressed with the number of students from across the country that are exposed to the evil and depravity of Nazi Germany and its henchmen in lands conquered by Hitler. And I wonder, how is it that there can still be Holocaust deniers among us? 

Each walk-through I find samples of exhibits current with news and events of our time period. 

One of the first pictures displayed is of General (and future president) Dwight D. Eisenhower at Ohrdruf concentration camp April 12, 1945, with his explanation, three days later, as to why he bore witness: 

“The things I saw beggar description…the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering … I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations werely to ‘propaganda.’”

How unfortunately prescient Ike was. 

A few steps further in, as the tableau laid out in blood-curdling detail the rise of Naziism, more chords of today’s reactionary thinking were evoked—book banning. 

To my knowledge we haven’t had formal book burning escapades, but can it be too far off when local activists have successfully had books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Beloved,” and “Of Mice and Men” removed from schools and municipal library shelves? 

Here’s how the Holocaust Museum described events 90 years ago: 

“In the spring of 1933, party officials and members of the Nazi students’ organization raided libraries and bookstores in 30 cities and towns across Germany. They removed truckloads of books and cast them onto bonfires. On May 10, more than 25,000 books were burned in Berlin alone. The book burnings were not spontaneous: they were a calculated, coordinated effort to ‘purify’ German culture. The students worked from prepared blacklists of books deemed ‘un-German.’ Some of these books were by Jewish authors; most were not…

“Also incinerated were books by the non-Jewish American novelists Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. Writings by the American women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger were destroyed, as were those by Helen Keller.”

As writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Given that American eighth grade students are falling behind—The New York Times reported last week that “about 40 percent of eighth graders scored “below basic” in U.S. history last year, compared with 34 percent in 2018 and 29 percent in 2014—our future increasingly is looking grim.