By Tami Thompson
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
Editors' Note: This article is based on an award-winning speech given by Tami Thompson in March 1994 in response to a series of hate crimes on Long Island, New York.
While Americans sat comfortably around their radios listening to President Roosevelt assure then that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself, German Jews were experiencing a fear far greater than anyone could ever imagine. Germany was in the midst of what was to be known as the Holocaust. Young daughters were separated from their mothers. Some were forced to watch as their fathers were beaten to death. Elderly couples were torn apart. A total of twelve million people belonging to various ethnic groups were murdered. These atrocities happened fifty years ago, but there is evidence that they are beginning once more. We must learn from our mistakes in the past, for we cannot survive another Holocaust.
Top Row (left to right): Joe Brundige, and Mike Cuneo
Bottom Row (left to right): Jennifer Barrese, Jill Hearty,
Tami Thompson, Todd Gunderson, Jeanine Minge,
and Christine Kolenik
This mass murdering of European Jews began after Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933. Hitler gave the Germans the ideas that the Aryan race was superior to all others. Through his persuasive speeches, he convinced them that the Jews and members of other minority groups were inferior humans without any true feelings. Such incessant propaganda began to modify the attitudes of even the most benign citizens. They were brainwashed by the antisemitic message which was everywhere -- in political cartoons, posters, newspaper articles, films, even in the children's nursery rhymes. As propaganda proliferated, the stage was set for the next phase of Hitler's plan.
On November 11, 1938, Nazi mobs broke the glass windows in all the stores, houses and cars owned by Jews. This was known as "Crystal Night," Kristallnacht. These riots were supported by the police and other officials! Jewish men were taken away from their families -- to where? Nobody asked. Nobody wanted to know too much. The Jews and other Germans were not fully aware of what was going on. The gradual disappearance of the floor on which they were standing was not like falling into a big hole. It was rather a slow sinking which they always hope would stop.
By the end of 1938, most Jews had either gone into hiding or were forced to move into the ghetto. The ghetto was a part of the city where Jews were made to live under wretched conditions. While living in the ghetto, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis. The SS soldiers would often bring their friends to the ghetto where they could show off their power. They would play cruel games by mocking the Jews. A story is told of an old Jewish man forced to smile and pose for photographs while the Nazi soldiers took target practice at his yamalka. Another story is told of a mother and her young child walking down the street holding hands; seconds later they were both killed by Nazi bullets.
When the ghetto became too crowded, the Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. They lived under horrible conditions and many died of starvation and disease. One woman recalls seeing another woman torn to pieces and die under her very eyes after an SS member encouraged his dog to attack her, while he grinned at the sight. To entertain themselves, the Nazis devised inhuman games, such as the one where one sister is told to beat the other or else they would both be killed. The soldiers would stand by and laugh as the one sister lost her sanity while watching the other one suffer.
The prisoners were often used as human guinea pigs when inexperienced doctors performed cruel experiments on them. Those too weak to work -- the old, the sick, many women and most children -- were killed with poisonous gas. A man remembers one day hearing painful screams echoing throughout the camp. He found later that the gas had run out, so the children were thrown alive into the furnaces.
The Nazis' cruelty was based upon their attitude that the Jews and others unlike themselves were less than human. This was their key rationalization for killing the Jews. Recently, in the United States, there is evidence that this culture of hate has been reincarnated. We must not let Hitler's deadly progression from propaganda to gas chambers happen again today.
Today there are organized hate groups called Neo-Nazis, or new Nazis. Their members are referred to as skinheads. One such group on the West Coast distributes hundreds of thousands of fliers to California college students. They spread the word that "Communism is Jewish." "Boycott Jew Stores," "Drive the rats out of town." Another group in California plotted to start a race war by killing prominent Jews and members of other minority groups.
Although these acts are inciteful, they are passive in comparison to what happened in Denver. Alan Berg, a talk show host on a Denver radio station was killed. Why? Because he was Jewish. It was discovered that his assailants were a Neo-Nazi hate group that awarded points to its "Aryan Warriors" for killing Jews and other minorities.
Still most hate crimes do not involve organized hate groups. Most often they are committed under ordinary circumstances by neighbors, co-workers, or groups of youngsters looking for a thrill.
Hate incidents have significantly increased on college campuses nationwide. A reminder of the Kristallnacht occurred when the windows of the Jewish student center at the University of Arizona were shattered one evening in a burst of gun fire. At the University of Wisconsin, two members of the Jewish fraternity were severely beaten. On another college campus, a fraternity group discouraged Jewish pledges by forcing them to say, "My number is 6 million. That's how many Jews were killed, and I should have been one of them."
Incidents like these have happened on numerous colleges campuses throughout the United States. But evidence is mounting that hate incidents are occurring more often at the high school level. At one school in Los Angeles, it was reported that SS symbols and swastikas had been etched into the classroom doors of Jewish teachers. Most frightening of all, a teenager broke the brake lines of a bus that was supposed to take children to a Jewish day camp.
On the 50th anniversary of Krastallnacht, four fourteen-year-old boys, from New Jersey, used shaving cream and spray paint to put antisemitic messages on the house, temples and store owned by the oldest and most prominent rabbi in the town. This man's entire family had been killed during the Holocaust, and he broke down and cried in court recalling these events.
Many of these kinds of incidents resulting from prejudice have occurred on Long Island in the past few years. Swastikas and messages of hate were discovered on the outside walls of a synagogue and warehouse in Oceanside in 1993. Phrases such as "the Holocaust is back" were written on various buildings throughout the town. One resident, who was a Holocaust survivor, said, "I can't believe that in America today -- in my own community -- I would be a target of this kind of harassment."
Around the same time, two teens were caught spreading antisemitic symbols and messages on an athletic track at Commack High School, hours before graduation ceremonies were to commence. On what was to be the joyous occasion of his grandson's graduation, one elderly man was deeply saddened to be reminded of the pain and tragedy he lived through during the Holocaust.
Even in our own tranquil community, hatred exists. Many of you may remember that our school was defaced last year with racial and ethnic slurs.
Last year in Suffolk County alone, there were 138 bias crimes. These incidents are a wake-up call symbolizing the intolerance that has become an ugly Long Island occurrence.
The recent spat of hate crimes in Suffolk county has convinced a broad coalition of community groups that the time for action has come. A new, anti-bias program has been formed in Suffolk County to educate bias offenders as to why their crimes are offensive to the groups of individuals they target.
A similar program has met with success in Los Angeles. There, skinheads are given a three day counseling session to confront their feelings of anger and hate. They are presented with sobering displays on prejudice, racism, genocide, Nazi Germany, concentration camps and Holocaust victims. At the program's completion, the majority of skinheads dissociate themselves from the radical groups and abandon the values that had led them to Neo-Nazi ideology.
Only through education can we prevent history from repeating itself. These may seem like a few isolated incidents, but just as in Nazi Germany fifty years ago, the floor on which we are standing is slowly sinking. If we are to survive as a nation, we must learn to set aside our feelings of hate and prejudice. Our grandparents were alive during the Holocaust, and now it's our job to create a society that does not have to relive that time period.
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