On Remembrance Day, Holocaust Survivor In LA Says Anti-Semitism Today In US Is Frightening

Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, 95, who appeared in 1998's Oscar winning documentary "Last Days," at an L.A. memorial event this week. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Eva Nathanson is a 78-year old Holocaust survivor who spent her earliest years in hiding in Budapest. Her father was murdered in a forced labor camp. She witnessed fellow Jews slaughtered by firing squad and was aided by underground resistance groups.

This week, she honored Holocaust Remembrance Day in a way that's become familiar: visiting schools, telling her story.

"I realize how little the American children know about what hatred can do and what bigotry can do, and I'm really worried about what could happen," Nathanson said. "So, I'm speaking as much as I'm asked to do."

The situation in the United States today frightens her.

Holocaust Remembrance Day falls just five days after a white nationalist with an AR-15 opened fire inside Chabad Poway on the final day of Passover, killing one person and injuring three others. The 19-year old man charged in the attack is from Southern California.

Six months before that, the deadliest attack on a synagogue in U.S. history claimed 11 lives in Pittsburgh.

"I lived in the United States for 60 years," said Nathanson. "I have not always agreed with the leadership, but I have never been afraid. This is the first time when I actually think it could happen here. It brings back all the old fears and the nightmares and everything."

As L.A.'s Jewish community gathers to commemorate the Holocaust this week, synagogues and Jewish institutions here remain in mourning and on high-alert. With anti-Semitism hate incidents on the rise locally, advocates for Holocaust education say the need to remember the past and learn from remaining survivors is greater than ever.

Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress delivers a speech last year in Warsaw for the 75th anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Yom HaShoah, as it's known in Hebrew, is a national holiday in Israel and commemorated across the Jewish world. The day marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and honors the lives of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. This year, it will be observed from sundown Wednesday to sundown Thursday. Events aren't limited to the single day. In the U.S., the whole week prior to Yom HaShoah is designated for Holocaust remembrance.


THE LAST SURVIVORS

Holocaust survivors listen to a remembrance service for the 6 million Jews who died under the Nazi regime, during a Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on April 21, 2017. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

"The last survivors, as well as the last perpetrators, liberators and onlookers of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust are rapidly leaving the world stage," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of global action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish-rights nonprofit based in Los Angeles. "This is actually a time when we really need to be able to connect the younger generations with the voice, the legacy, of those who suffered."

The Wiesenthal Center operates the Museum of Tolerance in Pico Robertson, a Holocaust education center that has welcomed about 7 million visitors.

Ben Stern, a 97-year old Holocaust survivor is scheduled to speak Thursday to L.A.-area students at the museum. Stern survived two ghettos, nine concentration camps and two death marches.

Rabbi Cooper says institutions like the Museum of Tolerance are even more important today than they were a generation ago, because the lessons of the Holocaust haven't been learned.

"Many young people may not even know anymore what Auschwitz stood for, why the Jews were singled out, what the uniqueness of the Holocaust was," said Cooper. "As well as some of the fundamental lessons. The warnings, lessons from that era, have never been more relevant."

COMMEMORATION IN THE FACE OF TRAGEDY

Nathanson, who came to the U.S. in 1957, shares her story regularly with visitors to L.A.'s Museum of the Holocaust in Fairfax. The museum, founded by Holocaust survivors in 1961, welcomed more than 20,000 students last year. This year, its annual Holocaust Day event was held on Sunday, just one day after the synagogue shooting in Poway.

"It was even more significant for people to come together in the wake of the tragic shooting on Saturday," said the museum's education director Jordanna Gessler. "Despite this and also because of this, we are coming together because we are not afraid of standing strong in the face of something so tragic."

Gessler says the uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence is especially worrying to her, as a Holocaust educator.

"When you look at Holocaust history, you really see the direct correlation between hate speech and eventual dehumanization and murder," Gessler said. "I think that the current situation in our country is challenging us to dig a little bit deeper, think about ourselves, think about the people around us, because I think we can all learn how to accept one another a bit more."

On Wednesday, Temple Israel of Hollywood held a special Holocaust Remembrance Day screening of the documentary "The Last Survivors." The event is hosted by the Survivor Mitzvah Project, a Los Angeles-based charity that provides financial aid to elderly Holocaust survivors in eastern Europe.

This Sunday, the Alpert Jewish Community Center of Long Beach is hosting a Yom HaShoah event with speaker Yetta Kane, a Holocaust survivor and author of the book "How To Survive Anything."

"This is last generation of Holocaust survivors," said Survivor Mitzvah Project founder Zane Buzby. "The passing of this generation of Holocaust survivors is a really important time to remember, because without them speaking, the only things we have from them are the things that they have written or recorded."

RISING ANTI-SEMITISM

This year's commemoration comes on the heels of two U.S. attacks on synagogues and an uptick in violence targeting religious communities around the world. A report released Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League suggests these events a part of a larger trend.

Anti-Semitic assaults more than doubled last year, according to the ADL, with 59 victims nationwide. Overall, the organization counted 1,879 hate incidents against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018, which include graffiti, harassment, and acts of violence. That's actually down 5 percent from 2017, but still the third-highest total since ADL started tracking this data in the 1970s.

In California, anti-Jewish hate incidents have risen steadily since 2015. There were 341 incidents recorded in California last year, more than any other state, and up from 268 the year prior.

Of those incidents, the ADL reported nine anti-Semitic assaults. The previous year there were none. Incidents of harassment also increased, while incidents of vandalism decreased.

"The problem is that people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust yet. Horrific atrocities, hatred, they're still in style," said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "As a matter of fact, it seems like they're a growth industry right now."

Breitbart says it's important to remember that for an atrocity like the Holocaust to occur, it takes three parties. There's perpetrators and victims.

"But most important, it takes an apathetic majority who just take a look at it and don't do anything," said Breitbart. "Those are the people that we want to connect with [as educators]."

Experts say violent anti-Semitism ideology has spread online in recent years, through message boards like 8chan and Gab.

"In the attacks that we've seen, these attackers, particularly this last weekend, have used these platforms to advance their ideology—not just that—but advertise their heinous acts of violence," Erroll Southers, professor of practice in national security at USC, told KPCC.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center shows a photo of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre during its annual ranking of the 10 worst anti-Semitic incidents of 2018, at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California in December. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

PROTECTING HOUSES OF WORSHIP

Jewish institutions in Los Angeles — where the memory of the 1999 attack by a white supremacist on a Jewish community center in Granada Hills is still vivid — have been taking security seriously for years. In 2012, the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles launched its community security initiative, creating a single point of contact for critical incident coordination and intelligence sharing for Jewish sites across Los Angeles. The network links more than 260 synagogues, schools and other Jewish centers with emergency services.

Southers says more synagogues will follow suit.

"I think churches are going to be looking at themselves as any other place that are open to the public and people can frequent, said Southers. "We think about things like stadiums, chemical plants, federal buildings. Now we have to include places of worship on that list of places that have to be secured."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper has dedicated his life to educating others about the Holocaust and promoting tolerance, but he says that's just a part of what's needed to keep Jewish communities safe.

"In order to promote tolerance in the world that we live in today, unfortunately, we have to talk about hardening houses of worship in terms of being a potential target," Cooper said. "Whatever you think about gun control, you need to have an armed guard to protect worshippers. We have to send a strong message to the bigots and racists and anti-semites."

This year, local Holocaust commemorations will be marked by mourning not only for the millions who died under Nazi rule in Europe, but also for Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was murdered by a Nazi sympathizer inside her San Diego County synagogue. In Jewish tradition, the dead are mourned for a period of days after their burial, an observance known as "shiva."

"This year, right here in Los Angeles, the sister of the woman who took a bullet for her rabbi in Poway, will be sitting shiva on Thursday, which is Holocaust Memorial Day," said Rabbi Cooper. "We are targets now. We need to work together to erode that threat."

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.