May 7, 2020 — New York
This piece originally appeared in Times of Israel.
Seventy-five years ago, the most destructive war in history came to an end in Europe. Adolf Hitler’s goal of a 1000-year Nazi reign collapsed 988 years early and in total ruin, but not before triggering the deaths of tens of millions.
Yet, as the world commemorates the Allied victory and recalls the war’s horrors, some are invoking the language of the Nazi era in response to COVID-19 restrictions. How appallingly inappropriate and insensitive!
Is it possible those involved don’t actually realize what they are saying? Or perhaps they do and proceed nonetheless?
Either way, it cannot be ignored, minimized, or rationalized.
Otherwise, words no longer have meaning, history is distorted beyond recognition, and the memories of Nazism’s victims are dishonored.
At a rally in Illinois to protest pandemic restrictions, one demonstrator held up a placard: “Arbeit Macht Frei, JB.” The first three German words — “Work Sets You Free” — refer to the infamous sign at the entrance to the Nazi slave labor and death camp at Auschwitz. The initials are for the state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, who happens to be Jewish.
This protester may have wanted her job back. If so, entirely understandable. But the Auschwitz sign she invoked was a cruel hoax. It led to a one-way journey into an indescribable hell for an estimated 1.1 million women, men, and children.
A second sign read “Heil, Pritzker” with a swastika displayed in between.
Seriously? Governor Pritzker is a Nazi because he seeks to fight a deadly virus and, like leaders elsewhere, applied the rigorous measures prescribed by public health authorities?
Those measures can be debated, of course. That’s not the issue. No one has a monopoly on wisdom in a crisis of this magnitude and uncertainty.
But to compare the current restrictions with the Hitler era? Shameful and sickening.
The Minority Leader in Colorado’s House of Representatives said that a home sheltering order by the state’s governor, Jared Polis, who also happens to be Jewish, reflected “a Gestapo-like mentality.”
Did this legislator have a clue what he was actually saying? Does he know of the Gestapo’s role in spreading paralyzing fear across occupied Europe and in Germany itself, operating entirely by its own rules, and arresting, torturing, and murdering countless opponents of the Third Reich.
Okay, so he is a political rival of Governor Polis. Fine. Our democracy depends on a two-party system and the right to dissent. Again, that’s not the point. By all means, argue and disagree But leave the Gestapo out of it.
My cousin, Mila Racine, a Jew in the French Underground, was arrested by the Nazis, in 1943, for smuggling Jewish children to neutral Switzerland, tortured by the Gestapo, and deported to a “Work Sets You Free” concentration camp, where she was killed two months before the war’s end. The residents of Colorado do not face the same fate.
Meanwhile, an Idaho state legislator called Governor Brad Little a “little Hitler” (pun intended?) and compared the lockdowns to Nazi Germany. In Michigan, some demonstrators opposed to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictions likened her to Adolf Hitler. And in North Carolina, an anti-lockdown protester at a rally held a sign saying: “Thank you, Governor [Roy] Cooper, you are doing the Reich thing.”
There are those who may actually believe these analogies. Others might think they’re simply drawing public attention to a cause by using inflammatory words and images. And some may have no clue what they’re saying, but are just mindlessly following the lead of others.
The 75th anniversary of the Allied victory over Hitler could be one of the last chances, while a few liberators, eyewitnesses, and survivors are still among us, to remind the world of what pure, demonic evil looked like.
Hitler, Nazism, swastikas, concentration camps, and the Gestapo were the embodiments of a tyrannical ideology that sought total conquest; perfected the industrialized machinery of murder; killed millions of civilians, including children, the handicapped, priests, gays, political opponents, Slavs, and Roma; celebrated the genocide of six million Jews in service to its racist, supremacist doctrine; destroyed entire countries; and, long after final defeat, left unhealed scars to this day, including for the families of hundreds of thousands of American GIs who made the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Hitler’s forces, not to mention those who continue to mourn relatives murdered in the Holocaust.
Surely, the English language is rich enough to allow people unhappy with current policies to express themselves eloquently, colorfully, and even forcefully, but without conjuring up wildly absurd Second World War references.
At a minimum, we owe historical truth — and those so profoundly and indelibly touched by it — no less.
David Harris is the CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC)