Don't be comforted by lullaby, 'It can't happen here'

My family lost more than 60 cousins in the Holocaust. As a child I met cousins who still had numbers tattooed on their arms from the Nazi concentration camps.

Don’t tell me it can’t happen.

Uncle Morris lived through the pogroms (attacks on Jews) in the Ukraine in 1918-19. He only lived because his grandmother fell dead on top of him after being hit with a Cossack’s saber. My uncle lost his hearing in one ear after being hit with blunt side of the same saber. Taking three years, he and his family walked from the Ukraine to Antwerp, Belgium, leaving there for America.

Again, they say, “This can’t happen here.” Not in 2019. Not after the nation elected its first black president.

I say that it can and is starting to happen here.

What President Donald Trump has done in his verbal attacks on "The Squad" — U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., IIhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — recalls the verbal attacks on Jews in Germany. That us-against-them hateful rhetoric begat Kristallnacht in November of 1938, when German paramilitary led mobs destroyed over 7,000 synagogues, wrecked Jewish businesses and incarcerated 30,000 Jewish men.

Trump’s verbal attacks are a form of stochastic terrorism that seeks to stifle First Amendment expression by creating among his critics the fear of random violence.

The president is trying to demonize the congresswomen by calling them “racists” who are “not very smart” and telling them “that they should go back to where they came from.”

The idea of “go back to where you came from” was also used in the 1940s and ‘50s by the journalist Walter Winchell to similarly demonize those who opposed the political fear campaign conducted by then Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was echoed in the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972.

There have already been publicly reported threats toward Representative Omar. One of those arrested for making those threats had numerous guns in his possession.

The president is whipping up his supporters, giving them a common foil. Those women, of origins in “corrupt and inept” countries. Those women, who are socialists. Those women, and by extension those who dare back them and their ideals, are a “Nightmare for America.”

“Send her back! Send her back!” the crowd chants in response.

Is this so very different from the rants against Jews and anyone who was non-Aryan by the likes of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, agitating German crowds in the lead up to the Holocaust?

Witness the attacks on synagogues in Philadelphia and California, on Sikhs and Muslims.

Stunning and concerning is the silence of so many political, organizational and corporate leaders in the United States to the attacks on Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib and Omar.

Now, the Dallas News and others report, ICE is detaining American citizens. Immigrants of color are carrying their passports and citizenship papers reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s, when citizens had to show their papers on demand.

We would do well to heed the warning given by the German Lutheran minister, Martin Niemöller in a poem:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

As the philosopher George Santayana once said, "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it."

I believe that failure to learn from the past endangers us all.

Nick Fischer is a career educator, most recently serving as superintendent of the New London school system. He has since left that position but remains a resident of the city.

 

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