Here’s what my father saw and wrote home about…
“The stories of German cruelty and oppression are not just stories—they are the real thing. And much of this was done by what we call ordinary people—not just the party members, but a vast number of common citizens who fell easy prey to the boloney of national socialism. People who were jealous, griped, depraved, and plain scared. A damn few seemed to have the courage to laugh in Adolf’s face—I have met some of them and have only admiration for them because they fought in spite of everything, and know on what side they stand and they have always stood.”
Dad understood that education was a key element…
“I want to see a complete re-education. A short talk with a boy from Hitler Jugend [Youth] would provide a very clear example. A conversation with a Nazi teacher who claims Germany’s right to enter Czechoslovakia because of 15th century tradition would be another illustration. Well, we can remove the Nazis, make an attempt for re-education—in which, incidentally, we had better succeed—but we have to get deeper also to the cause of this war and the cause of Nazism. Why did this education arrive here in Germany?”
He documented the ultimate result of this education when he opened the door to a death camp hidden under a hill next to a hospital.
“Nordhausen was a wreck and also the scene of concentration camp leftovers—we saw over 2,000 bodies in one place—the sight and smell are still with me. The gruesome details I’ll omit—suffice it to say that “gruesome” is a weak word for infants and old maids. They are terrible, disgusting, horrifying …”
As traumatizing as Nordhausen was, Dad was equally disgusted with the denial and refusal to see what had happened.
“I have talked to enough Germans in the past months to fill a good-sized section of Milwaukee—and all types…Confront them with the truth and they cannot believe it. An army doctor—a major—once told me that he had been in Russia for a year he had never once heard of any German atrocities – yes they hung a few people one night and forgot to cut down the bodies down for a few days, but everything else was propaganda. He also told me that some of his best friends were Jews, but one night they all disappeared and he never did get around to inquiring about what had happened to them.”
His legacy of letters compelled me to dedicate my life to tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for Repair of the World. My work included coming to Chattanooga as executive director of the Jewish Federation and building its Jewish Cultural Center. It also meant responding to explosions of hate: creating the duPage Interfaith Resource Network in Chicago after a street riot, leading the Say No to Hate Coalition in Oklahoma after the Oklahoma City bombing, and creating the online American Diversity Report after 9/11.
After Charlottesville, we should not, and cannot, accept denial. The argument that there are few white supremacists and neo-Nazis is as deeply insulting today as it was after World War II. We must speak out and educate and that is what I intend to do. What is your plan?