‘I don’t know how we survived’: A new generation of antisemitism we thought was behind us
By James Rosen
For me and Jews of my generation, the ancient scourge of antisemitism seemed to have faded away. Now those days are back in a way Holocaust survivors I grew up with never thought could happen again.
We sat silent and shellshocked as the gruesome images flickered across the white projector screen pulled down over the blackboard.
We watched the grainy black-and-white footage of World War II liberators—Russian, U.S. and British soldiers—entering Hitler’s death camps and recording what they encountered.
Mounds of shoes removed from Jewish prisoners before they entered the gas chambers. Mountains of unburied corpses. Stores of gold yanked from cavity fillings. Fourteen thousand pounds of human hair at Auschwitz alone. The skeletal survivors who greeted the liberators were ghosts freed from worse than a living hell. Their expressionless eyes bulged from hairless heads.
We were only nine years old. For most communities it would have been inappropriate, even abusive, to show children horrifying pictures they would never unsee.
That was the point. We were not most communities. We lived in a Detroit suburb called Oak Park that was home to 40,000 Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors.
Around the dinner table at the home of my friend Harry, I heard his Polish parents tell more intimate but no less awful stories of their time at Auschwitz, where they secretly married with an imprisoned priest filling in as rabbi. It was in a clandestine nighttime ceremony held between two of the concentration camp’s five crematoria where 4,416 corpses burned each day.
Poland lost almost three million Jews to the Nazis—more than any other country and almost half the total slaughtered—but Nosson and Pesha (their Yiddish names) escaped death thanks to their strength, hard work and will to live.
“Ikh veys nisht vyazoy mir habn igergelebt,” Mrs. Potach whispered in Yiddish over a delicious bowl of her homemade borscht with sour cream. “I don’t know how we survived.”
Our Hebrew School teachers, some who had been through the camps, wanted the images they showed us to be ingrained in our memories.
For Israel, the young nation where we sent our nickels, dimes and quarters, the motto was: “Never again.” Our teachers had a different motto. Day after day, they had only one lesson for us: “Never forget.”
But as we grew into adulthood, it became hard to remember. My dad had been that great rarity of sports—a Jewish baseball player. After having left the sport to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War and then building a successful heating-and-cooling business in Detroit, he told my brothers and me tales from barnstorming through the bush leagues.
His last name then was Rosenblatt, and opposing fans wielded it against him with sadistic glee. When he came to bat, they rained antisemitic slurs down on him. Sometimes players on the other team joined them.
The pain and fear became so great, he changed his name to Rosen. Still Jewish, but not quite as obviously so.
The years passed, and the country changed. Anti-Black racism fueled the civil rights movement, producing landmark legislation protecting people of color. Jews appeared to have joined the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese and the Germans in assimilating into a more accepting America.
“Thank God those days are gone, sons,” my father would tell my two brothers and me from the driver’s seat of his silver Cadillac, smoke from his pipe wafting into the back seat where we sat.
A new generation faces an ancient scourge
I never encountered antisemitism. For me and Jews of my generation, the ancient scourge seemed to have faded away like a giant scaly lizard receding into the mist.
Now those days are back in a way the Holocaust survivors I grew up with never thought could happen again–not in the United States, home to millions of immigrants from all nations, haven for Jews hounded from their native lands.
The recent disgraceful declarations of Donald Trump’s dinner guests Kanye West and Nick Fuentes only amplified earlier bursts of antisemitism, some of them murderous. Trump bore some responsibility long before his hideous Mar-A-Lago dinner, saying there were “very fine people, on both sides” among the “Unite the Right” bigots who marched past the main synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 chanting, “Jews will not replace us!”
A white supremacist plowed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old activist.
The next year, an antisemite entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down 11 worshippers, shouting “All Jews must die!” as he fired.
Just last month men stood on a Los Angeles freeway overpass and hung a banner that read, “Honk if you know Kanye was right about the Jews.” They were praising the rapper now known as Ye for tweeting “going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”
This month, Ye went on far-right conspiracist Alex Jones’ podcast and declared, “I like Hitler.”
Antisemitism lies: Kyrie Irving and Kanye West didn’t just say hurtful things. They told ugly lies about Jews. As for Fuentes, a punk racist who said, “The Founders never intended for America to be a refugee camp for nonwhite people”–he compared Jews burnt to death in concentration camps to cookies in an oven, and derided progressive changes as “bastardized Jewish subversion of the American creed.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was stripped of her committee assignments in February 2021 for having denied the Holocaust and having claimed that Jewish space lasers are targeting the North Pole because Jews are “enemies of Christmas.” With Republicans now in control of the House, she reclaimed the committee assignments as an ascendant MAGA star.
Grappling with the freedom to hate
In the late 1970s, the Holocaust survivors in my hometown and many Jews across the country were outraged when the American Civil Liberties Union went to court to defend the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois. Still today the ACLU, considered a liberal group, defends that stance with the self-serving assertion: “The notoriety of the case caused some ACLU members to resign, but to many others the case has come to represent the ACLU’s unwavering commitment to principle.”
And now the ACLU sends me a survey that begins by saying it is “pushing back against escalating state-by-state attacks on voting rights, access to abortion, LGBTQ equality, honest education about race and gender, and more.”
Sorry, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t defend both the rights of oppressed people and the rights of their oppressors. This is the lesson that another “free speech absolutist,” Elon Musk, is learning as he fumbles his way through his Twitter adventure, banning one bigot, unbanning another, trying to weigh the difference between acceptable and unacceptable bile.
There is no difference. With QAnon followers and conspiracy theorists gaining thousands of followers on barbarous social media platforms, the shocking spread of antisemitism shows that the high-sounding notion of absolute free speech is just a sanitized version of hate speech.
James Rosen is an American journalist, television correspondent, and author. He is now at Newsmax as its chief White House correspondent. This Opinion piece originally appeared in USA Today, and is reprinted with permission.