The specter of the Holocaust haunts the childhood of Jewish children raised everywhere, including those in America. While Judaism’s history and tradition are rife with examples of near extermination, the horrific temporal proximity of the twentieth century’s attempt at eradicating the Jews plays an outsized role in diasporic childrearing. In the scope of history, the Holocaust was quite recent. Still, when I was a teenager, the constant reminders of mass slaughter seemed hyperbolic, superfluous, and all of the other words I had just learned in preparation for the SATs. While I was empathetic to the struggles of my elders, in the booming prosperity of suburban New Jersey, my corner of late twentieth century America, all of the state-led violence and religious strife seemed impossibly retro.
The lessons of that education, though, are sticky. One of the cornerstones of anti-genocidal education is a famous poem by Martin Niemoller, the most standard version of which is reprinted on the walls of Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum. The German pastor’s words are seared into the minds of every American Jew of my generation:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I started to see Niemoller’s poem again last fall, on the facebook feeds of my friends, as Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans, Muslims, and non-White Americans became commonplace in political discourse. I have been outspoken in my disdain for Trump, and for the rampant systemic racism that has propelled his candidacy, but I have never outright compared him to Hitler.
Still, is Donald Trump a new Hitler? I'm not the only one asking. If every major newspaper feels like it’s necessary to pose questions about your similarity to the Nazi leader, it’s at least time for some self-reflection. When foreign leaders engage in a dialectic over whether Hitler or Mussolini is your more appropriate political antecedent, you might start losing sleep. When your own political party starts running ads comparing you to Hitler, the question might be moot.
For the record, I don’t think it’s fair to compare Trump to Hitler. Hitler killed, or was responsible for killing, over ten million people, including six million Jews. Trump, so far, has fired Meatloaf from The Apprentice. Here, though, are some actual Donald Trump quotes, unedited, except with the words “Muslim, “Islam”, and “Islamic” replaced with the words “Jew,” “Jewish,” and “Judaism”:
"I have Jewish friends … But there's a tremendous section and cross-section of Jews living in our country who have tremendous animosity."
“Jews are not coming to this country if I'm president. And if Obama has brought some to this country they are leaving, they're going, they're gone."
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Jews entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on … there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Jewish population.”
I don’t think that American voters will elect Donald Trump, nor do I think it’s fair to compare someone to Hitler before he commits actual atrocities. Still, if you’re ignoring this rhetoric, particularly if you’re Jewish, you’re sleeping on the wisdom of your Hebrew school teachers.