International Holocaust Remembrance Day is always a somber time for Auschwitz survivor Irene Weiss. But this year’s observance had another layer of grief: For the first time, Weiss is worried about her adopted homeland.
“I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues,” the 85-year-old Weiss told me at Wednesday’s commemoration at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “They touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”
Weiss lost her parents and most of her siblings in Hitler’s death camps. To Weiss, the political environment in 2016 has an ominous precedent.“It has echoes, and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans,” she said. “I’m scared. I don’t like the trend. I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues. It can turn.”
This year’s remembrance comes at a time when GOP front-runner Donald Trump retweets a message from @WhiteGenocideTM based in “Jewmerica,” and his main challenger, Ted Cruz, brandishes the endorsement of a minister who says Hitler was a “hunter” sent after the Jews by God.
“It’s really frightening,” said Al Munzer, hidden as an infant in the Netherlands with a Dutch family and their Muslim nanny. “When you see these mass rallies that Trump is able to attract, you really wonder: How are they buying into this message of hate?”
Munzer, who lost two sisters and his father, said he never thought such things could happen here, but now he’s not so sure.
At this time of hostility to Muslims in America, museum staff arranged for Johanna Gerechter Neumann, who fled with her family to Albania after Kristallnacht, to talk about how Muslims protected them from Hitler. Her father “certainly thought that it could never happen in Germany,” she said. “It did happen. Slowly, but it did happen.”
And now the aging survivors worry it is beginning, slowly, to happen again. “It is repeating itself, and it is again the inattention that people pay to real cues that one should understand,” said Margit Meissner, almost 94, who fled on foot through the Pyrenees from occupied France.
“It’s not Weimar,” she said, “but it could become Weimar Germany if you have Mr. Trump here and people keep believing what he says. … I think one has to speak up. And that’s the one lesson from the Holocaust: Do not be a bystander.”
In Wednesday’s ceremony, German Ambassador Peter Wittig read aloud the recollections of Martin Weiss, who survived Auschwitz as a 15-year-old but lost most of his family: “We could also smell flesh burning, and then we saw the chimneys, the big five chimneys with black smoke coming out.”
For the first time, through Trump, Martin Weiss hears echoes of his youth. “The guy scares me,” he said. “I don’t want to make any comparison to Hitler, but believe it or not his delivery and the way he conducts himself is very similar to Hitler’s way of doing things. He discredits everybody who disagrees with him. He’s insulting. He discriminates against everybody.”
Weiss continued: “Sooner or later, you know what happens in a case like this? That’s how Weimar Germany went to hell, because when Hitler came in, if somebody disagreed with him – guess what – he put them in prison or he had them shot or he opened the concentration camp.”
We are still far from that in America. But if anybody has the right to make the comparison, it is a man who saw the ovens of Auschwitz.
Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post.