Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—urges people around the world to never forget the extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany. To mark the commemoration, which this year began at sundown last night and continues today, Rivers welcomed two guest speakers to a special all-school meeting on Wednesday. Their message? Antisemitism did not begin or end with the Holocaust. At a moment when antisemitic incidents are on the rise at home and abroad, that message was especially timely.
Dr. Rachel Fish is founding executive director of The Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism; Jack Trompetter, born in Amsterdam in 1942, is a Holocaust survivor who lost many family members to the gas chambers. Between them, they painted a vivid picture of how hatred of Jews has played out historically, and how it continues to grow insidiously today.
Fish first spoke informatively about the roots of antisemitism, reaching back to medieval Europe. The trope of the blood libel (the notion that Jews use the blood of Christian babies in their religious rituals) and the notion that the Jews killed Christ have tentacles that have spread to the present day. Jews were seen as “other,” and later, that initial religious framing became “racialized,” said Fish, attaching itself to the very DNA of the Jewish people. The labeling of Jews as “non-Aryan” laid the groundwork for the Holocaust and continues to inform antisemitism, bolstered by white supremacy, on the right today. Fish noted, too, that antisemitism today also comes from the left, when Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the Israeli government or are perceived as privileged oppressors.
Antisemitism has proven surprisingly adaptable. “It’s a form of hatred that doesn’t remain static but changes with the needs of society,” said Fish. “Society needs a scapegoat for the root cause of its ills, and Jews tend to be that scapegoat.”
After Fish provided the historic overview, Trompetter spoke movingly about his personal experience as a Holocaust survivor. In occupied Amsterdam, his father had been detained by the Nazis at the moment of Trompetter’s birth. Released days later by the barest stroke of luck, his father was determined that the young family should go into hiding.
So began a long odyssey in which Trompetter, only weeks old, was separated from his family for three years, so as to ensure his safety. His parents spent the time hiding in the attic of a gentile relative, never leaving the house for fear of capture. Trompetter, after being shuttled about, ended up at the farmhouse of an older gentile couple who treated him as their own. When the family was reunited at the end of the war, it was an emotional challenge. “The [foster] family didn’t want to give me up, but my parents convinced them it would be the right thing to do,” said Trompetter. But the war years had taken their toll: “Everything that happened after the war was complicated and complex, and there were questions that had no good answers… For Jews, the emotional reality was pain, loss, and fear.” The young boy experienced a “nervous breakdown” and spent some time in the hospital.
Eventually, the family made its way to America. “We were one of the lucky ones,” said Trompetter. Life was more tenable in America, though still far from easy. Trompetter came of age in Brooklyn, sometimes enduring the antisemitic taunts and provocations of other neighborhood children. The Holocaust itself receded, but its aftershocks were long felt by Trompetter and other survivors.
After the presentation by the two speakers, there was a brief Q&A period. One questioner asked the guests, “What does antisemitism look like now?” Fish noted that social media and its attendant anonymity sometimes allow the growth and spread of antisemitism. Trompetter said that “antisemitism will always exist, but we need to make it more shameful and stupid.”
To bring that about, it might be useful to refer to one of Fish’s earlier comments. Pondering the durability of antisemitism, she posited what needed to be done to counteract it. Said Fish, “We must create the brave spaces that are needed for upstander qualities, and build the muscle of compassion.”