Stephen B. Jacobs has a warning from the past for America today: It’s happening again.
At 79 years old he is among the youngest of the Holocaust survivors still alive. But Jacobs can remember life in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald; what the Nazis did to him, his family, his friends.
He worries about what’s happening right now in America, where he has lived and prospered since arriving a couple of years after Buchenwald’s liberation on April 11, 1945.
The American far-right appears emboldened since the election of President Donald Trump, who led an inflammatory, nationalist campaign. Since then, clashes like the one in Charlottesville are becoming almost commonplace.
“Things just go from bad to worse every day,” Jacobs, a successful New York architect who designed the Holocaust memorial at Buchenwald, tells Newsweek. “There’s a real problem growing.”
So much so that Jacobs thinks there’s a “direct parallel” with Germany between the two world wars.
Perhaps more alarming than the far-right getting braver is the seep into mainstream politics of their hate, their talking points, their rhetoric. “It feels like 1929 or 1930 Berlin,” Jacobs says, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018 on Thursday.
“Things that couldn’t be said five years ago, four years ago, three years ago—couldn’t be said in public—are now normal discourse. It’s totally unacceptable.
“We thought our country had changed. In fact, it didn’t. We were operating on a misconception. ‘My god, we elected a black president in the United States! Look how far we’ve come!’ We haven’t.”
In Trump, Jacobs says, the far-right sees an “enabler.”
“I’m involved with New York real estate, I know this man personally,” says Jacobs, whose eponymous architecture firm celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017. “Trump is an enabler. Trump has no ideas. Trump is out for himself.
“He’s a sick, very disturbed individual.
“I couldn’t say that Trump is a fascist because you’ve got to know what fascism is. And I don’t think he has the mental power to even understand it.”
Jacobs calls New York, where he lives, an “island of resistance”. But he says Washington will soon realize too that “fascism has to be resisted.”
“Fascism could have been won in Spain. It could’ve been stopped. But appeasement of fascism is what led to everything,” Jacobs warns.
This is a man who lived what happens when fascism isn’t stopped before it metastasizes.
He was born in Łódź, Poland, in 1939. His father, a physician, moved the family to Piotrków, near Warsaw, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September of that year.
Piotrków, where many Jewish refugees in Poland fled, would become the Nazis’ first ghetto.
Liquidated in 1942, a labor camp was established with two factories, where the family lived until their brutal separation in 1944.
The women—his mother, three aunts and grandmother—were taken to a camp at Ravensbrück. The men—him, his older brother and his father—to Buchenwald.
“In my case, you didn’t eat in Buchenwald unless you worked. So I was given an identity card that said I was 16 years old,” Jacobs says. “I was five.”
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