Seventy-five years ago, Hollywood directors filmed the U.S. Army barreling into Dachau concentration camp. They zoomed in on a 34-year-old man weighing 85 pounds.
“Why are you here as a prisoner?” they asked.
“Because I am a Jew,” my atheist grandfather said.
My grandfather was the only one of his friends still alive. He did not know then that my grandmother had survived. Last he’d seen her, Nazi officers were prodding her from a cattle-car at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Fleeing violence and instability splits families apart. My grandfather’s sisters had foreseen genocidal catastrophe. Like refugees today, they fled across oceans.
Maybe my grandfather chose to stay in Kraków for his parents’ sake, even though he had also seen the racist omens: politicians in Poland and Germany had vowed to expel Jews. Conspiracy theories scapegoating Jews thrived — theories trumpeted today by Hungary’s prime minister, by hate groups blaming George Soros for COVID-19, by Republican congressional candidate Marjory Green (who has also made derogatory statements about Black people and Muslims) and by other QAnon followers, of whom 78 are former and current congressional candidates.
QAnon has adapted the same fictional "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and blood libel conspiracies promoted by Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany — that a cabal of Jewish elites want to take over the world, and that Jews kidnap and kill children to drink their blood. QAnon’s appeal is mushrooming beyond U.S. borders. Trump embraces Q’s followers’ support.
“Do not be indifferent when you hear lies, historical lies,” an Auschwitz survivor warned in a speech early this year.
I often think about the green numbers tattooed on my grandmother’s arm. Growing up I could never comprehend how people could turn on one another, but today we are witnessing the beginnings of how. My grandmother once told me there’s evil inside all of us, and when societal norms of respect and decency break down, we’re capable of treating each other like animals.
The root cause of systemic racism is familiar to all genocide survivors: when we dehumanize ‘others,’ we can justify the denial of rights and all kinds of violence. After Germany passed the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, bigotry — fueled by conspiracies and propaganda — worsened. A Polish newspaper slandered my great aunt, a concert-violinist, for “poisoning the souls” of radio listeners. The Polish government restricted my grandfather and other Jewish lawyers from obtaining licenses. While these discriminatory actions were dwarfed by Nazi Germany’s atrocities, the General Assembly of Journalists, banks and the Polish Medical Association passed restriction laws too.
Step by step over years, laws can change so gradually that the dominant majority either does not notice, or simply lets acts of prejudice slip by. It is indeed like placing a frog in a pot of cold water, heating it up ever-so-gradually to a boil so that the frog does not jump out, because it does not even realize what is happening.
My grandfather’s sisters fled Poland and Hungary. They concluded that Eastern Europe and Germany could not swing away from hate.
Step by step over years, laws can change so gradually that the dominant majority either does not notice, or simply lets acts of prejudice slip by.
In 2020, it took a video of a white policeman putting his knee on a Black man’s neck, and killing him, to awaken many white people to systemic hatred. We were lulled into complacency, but history requires us to recognize the signs -- conspiracy theories and racist dog-whistles from the White House, disparaging journalists, the undermining of democratic processes and institutions — that can spiral into disorder and violence. This year Amnesty International condemned the U.S. for gross violations of human rights, by police officers and federal troops against “protesters, medics, journalists and legal observers.”
For those finding comfort in conspiracy theories during the current pandemic, my family is proof that these theories lead to anything but comfort. After my grandfather’s liberation, the U.S. Army appointed him administrative director of the War Crimes Branch. He oversaw high ranking Nazis held in Dachau’s SS compound and bunker. He solicited information for building legal cases for their prosecutions at the Dachau and Nuremberg trials. But by then, it was too late.
When my grandfather first saw American soldiers driving through the gates of Dachau concentration camp, he knew he was free.
To my grandfather, the U.S. represented values antithetical to the regime that killed his friends and family. If he were alive today, I know he would encourage me to vote against leaders who leverage conspiracy theories to divide us and sow hate.