In the last six months of the Second World War, my grandfather escaped a train travelling to Auschwitz. He cut a hole in the bottom of the cattle cart and lay down on the tracks. He often remarked how slowly the trains moved, rendering him completely unharmed by this process. Afterwards, he walked back to Budapest and was hidden by a woman for the remainder of the war, then working with the Soviets pointing out collaborators and Nazis once the city was liberated.
Therefore, I was rather unsettled by the fact that a week before Holocaust Memorial Day, Donald Trump used his inauguration speech to bring back into fashion that classic phrase ‘America First.’
I had many conversations in the lead up to the election with colleagues and friends that Trump’s words were just ways of galvanising voters (as if using racism to make people vote for you isn’t in itself extremely offensive ), and that it would be different if he’s actually elected. Then he was elected and named Steve Bannon as his chief of staff. Then he was inaugurated and called CNN “fake news”. Then the White House Website deleted its page on the Civil Rights Movement and replaced it with information on “law and order”. Then in his first six days as President, Trump has pilloried and threatened almost every vulnerable group and minority community in America with destructive executive orders. Seems to me like Trump is doing exactly what he said he was going to do.
I’m generally sceptical of the idea that we can learn from trauma. There is little I can glean, other than utter horror, about the world from my grandmother being spat at and called a Jewish pig in Berlin in the 1930s, or the fact that there are pits all over Eastern Europe filled with remains of Jewish bodies.
But what I do feel very strongly is that we can see the warning signs. When those warning signs erupt, be it a member of the alt-right as the chief of staff, or the campaign advisor talking about “alternative facts” or the lists of crimes committed by immigrants, we can begin to think about our choices over the next four years.
Language is important. The rhetoric, the lies, the manipulation of the media that is hurtling out of the White House right now is ripping at the fabric of American society. It is a way of dividing people, of creating scapegoats for socio-economic problems. As a Jew I feel all too aware of these warning signs. I grew up hearing about these warning signs. They changed the entire course of my family’s life.
The choice I recommend this Holocaust Memorial Day: fight like hell. Fight for your Muslim neighbour who experiences hate crime. Fight for the Jewish communal centre that has bomb threats. Fight for the undocumented worker who is terrified they will be separated from their family; for the LGBTQ people whose identity is denied by this administration. Fight for women who want to have ownership and choice over what they do with their bodies and for those who continuously suffer under police brutality. The elation or excitement that came out of the women’s marches across the world last weekend must be replaced with a clear sense of the impending damage and violence that is about to be inflicted upon our communities. It must a call for those of us who are allies to organise, and to stand up.
There will be those that challenge the idea that comparing Trump to Hitler is perhaps not only a bit lazy, but also inaccurate. Sure, the likelihood of a second Shoah is small. But make no mistake that there is danger in the rise of nationalist politics. The policies and posturing of Trump’s first week in office will have very real, painful consequences for millions of people. It must galvanise us to resist, and offer support to those who are under threat.