Honor Alter Wiener's legacy for our past, present and future
Oregon lawmakers are taking up the cause that Alter Wiener was championing at the time of his death late last year.
Wiener, a Polish-American survivor of the Holocaust who lived in Hillsboro, was an advocate of requiring more education in schools about the Holocaust and genocide. Senate Bill 664, which received strong support from the Senate Education Committee last week, would add those topics to school curricula throughout Oregon.
World War II in Europe ended nearly 74 years ago, bringing a decisive end to Nazi rule of Germany and the various countries and territories it occupied or annexed during Adolf Hitler's reign of terror. As part of de-Nazification, pursued in both capitalist West Germany and Austria and communist East Germany in the years after the war, many civilians in former Nazi Germany were made to tour the death camps and concentration camps liberated by Allied soldiers during or at the end of the war. For many of them, it was the first time seeing the end result of the escalating anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, ethnic nationalism and white supremacism that the Nazi Party espoused. And yet, it was their logical conclusion — the "final solution" of which Hitler and his lieutenants gloated.
Wiener survived his three-year ordeal as a Polish Jew forced into the Nazi camps. Millions did not. The ultimate death toll of the Holocaust will never be fully known, but some estimates suggest that as many as 20 million people were imprisoned and killed by the Nazis, including five to six million Jews. It was the single largest act of genocide in human history, with its victims also including political enemies, prisoners of war, gay men, people with mental and physical disabilities, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Roma, and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The scale of the Holocaust is almost unfathomable today. And Wiener's death in a Hillsboro car crash in December takes away one more of the dwindling number of people who experienced it firsthand, or are old enough to remember it.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, in the United States as well as Europe. Some of the political rhetoric during the 2016 and 2018 elections drifted into the realm of the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" propaganda that was used to incite hatred against Jews during the 1920s and '30s. Caricatures of Jewish politicians with fistfuls of money, Jewish donors as sinister figures bent on world domination and Jewish interests buying loyalty through bribery are malicious stereotypes that have historically been used to portray the Jewish people as "enemies" and "others."
Alter Wiener saw where that propaganda leads to. He saw it at Auschwitz. He was fortunate enough to live to tell his story, both through an autobiography and through hundreds of appearances at schools, libraries, community centers and more.
Over the next 20 to 30 years, the Holocaust will pass from living memory. What Oregon lawmakers now have a chance to do is ensure that it will never be forgotten.
Prejudice and hatred based on race, religion, nationality, sexuality or ability can curdle into mass violence. When a group is singled out and blamed for an entire nation's problems, "extreme measures" begin to seem appropriate.
Genocide, ethnic cleansing and collective punishment are not uniquely European sins. The United States has its own shameful history.
People in this country kept African slaves — many of them subjected to cruel and wanton abuse, all of them denied basic human freedom and dignity — decades longer than Europeans did. For a century after that, hundreds of thousands of black and mixed-race Americans were subjected to "Jim Crow" laws: segregation, poll taxes and literacy requirements, and restrictions on where they could work and live. The Oregon state constitution explicitly prohibited people of African and Chinese descent from voting or owning property, a provision that wasn't repealed until 1926.
Not only Oregon but this entire country rests — all 50 states' worth — on land that belonged to Native peoples before European colonizers and American and Mexican settlers "tamed" it. Even well into the 20th century, Native children were taken from their families and forced to attend government-run boarding schools, where they were forbidden from speaking their own languages and practicing their own religious beliefs.
At the same time the Holocaust was happening in Europe, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, including Washington County residents, had their property confiscated and were forced into internment camps. Even after the war was over, many of them returned to nothing but the enmity and mistrust of their former neighbors. Reparations were not paid out until the 1990s.
It's vital that our children understand the Holocaust in context: What were the conditions that made it possible? What were the beliefs and objectives of the people who perpetrated it? What were its historical antecedents?
The Holocaust isn't something that could only happen in Europe, or that could only be done by the Nazis, or that could only happen in a bygone era. "It couldn't happen here" is a popular refrain, but it isn't the truth unless there is action to back it up.
Here's another popular refrain: "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it."
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