Victims of Holocaust

This photograph made by Nazis to record their suppression of the spring 1943 Warsaw, Poland, ghetto uprising shows women and children being forced from their shelters at gunpoint. This photograph and others was used after the war in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.

In April 1943, Americans had been fighting World War II in Europe and in the Pacific for 17 months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under Adolf Hitler's leadership, Germany had been persecuting Jews for a decade, systematically ratcheting up campaigns of scapegoating, displacement, imprisonment and mass murder.

In the spring of 1943, there were few news reports in The Billings Gazette about the Jewish genocide that is now known as the Holocaust. But on April 29, 1943, The Gazette reprinted the article below from The Oregonian newspaper. Why are we bringing up this horrifying piece of history?

May 2 is the day Congress has designated this year to commemorate Days of Remembrance of the Holocaust, as we were reminded by Uri Barnea, a retired rabbi and orchestra conductor who lives in Billings. The Holocaust is personal for Barnea; his parents barely escaped from the Nazis and many of their family members were killed in German concentration camps.

Holocaust remembrance is important for Americans who aren't Jewish, and especially for those of us too young to have lived through World War II. 

This annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance is observed 12 days after the start of Passover, the same time of year as the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. More than 400,000 Polish Jews had been forced into the ghetto in Warsaw, the Polish capital city. The Nazis erected a 10-foot-high wall topped with barbed wire around the this crowded, small area of the city where Jews were denied food, medical care and city sanitation services. Starvation and epidemics killed thousands.

Yet when word came that Nazis were coming to the ghetto with orders for all Jews to report for deportation to death camps, the Jewish resistance fought back. With only small firearms and grenades, Jewish fighters held off 2,000 Nazi storm troopers, tanks and flame throwers for 20 days. Finally, the Nazis set all the buildings on fire, killing families in hiding and sending the rest fleeing into their murderers' grasp.

The Holocaust stands out for the sheer magnitude of its evil, the murder of an estimated 6 million Jewish men, women and children because they were Jewish. Nazi Germany also sought out and murdered thousands of Gypsies and gay people.

The Holocaust was so terrible, many people thought it would never happen again. But genocide and "ethnic cleansing" have since devastated Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and Myanmar. Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the United States, even in Montana where racist, white nationalist fliers show up on our college campuses and Whitefish Jewish  residents were terrorized by threats. Historically, both the extreme right and the extreme left have wielded anti-Semitism to achieve their ends.

"Wherever there is trouble, people are always looking for a scapegoat," Barnea said. "All of us are capable of doing things like that. Germans were very cultivated people, yet they were brainwashed."

"The counter force to fear mongering is memory," Barnea said. "The power of memory is enormous."

The Holocaust is powerful testimony to what can happen when mob mentality drives the thinking of a nation. For years, German newspapers carried a slogan on the front page blaming Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I and for every economic woe that befell the country. Words matter; everyone — every American, every Montanan — has a duty to speak out against racism and prejudice. 

Terrorists foreign and domestic continue to target people because of their religion and race. Last Saturday, a gunman attacked worshipers at a synagogue near San Diego, killing one woman and wounding three other people. More than 300 people died in Easter Sunday bombings at hotels and Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Dozens of people were killed and many more injured in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Six months ago, a gunman shot his way into a Philadelphia synagogue and murdered 11 innocent people.

With so much violence around us, people of peace must respond to support those among us who may be targets of racism and discrimination. Let us condemn hate speech that leads to discrimination, vandalism, violence, intimidation and murder. 

Let us teach our children and youth what the Holocaust teaches us. As Barnea said: "We need to educate all the children of every nation because it could happen again."

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