Leon Malmed, a Holocaust survivor living in Reno, has for years been speaking about his World War II experiences at local schools and events. Audience members in recent years have asked him if he sees any similarity between what happened in the late 1930s and 1940s and what he encounters in the U.S. today.
“Right now, we have a lot of open racism,” said Malmed. “There is racism against Black people, against immigrants, against Japanese people, against Latinos, against Jewish people.”
Malmed was 4 years old and his sister, Rachel, was 10, when the French police, under orders from the Nazis, took their parents away. A French couple took the siblings to their home and protected them during the rest of World War II. They never saw their parents again. Malmed went on to join the French Air Force and eventually emigrated to the U.S.
He said he’s taken aback by the nation’s apparent surge in intolerance. He said whether hatred manifests as anti-Semitism or white supremacy, its increase can be traced to the presidency of Donald Trump. Many of Trump’s policies, attitudes and remarks open the door for people to publically espouse white supremacist positions. In addition, he said, the president’s words can be a catalyst for unhinged people to commit violence.
Research shows anti-Semitism, racism increasing
For many years, when white supremacist ideology surfaced in public, those who espoused it were subject to a backlash of public opinion. That kept the movement on the fringes of society. Over the last several years, incidents involving white supremacist groups and individuals have become more common, research indicates. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, white nationalist hate groups have increased 55% since 2017. That year, The Anti-Defamation League reported, anti-Semitic incidents rose almost 60%, the largest single-year increase on record.
Violent incidents indicating a junction between anti-Semitism and white supremacy often make headlines. In 2018, 11 people were killed at a mass shooting at the Tree of life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. The suspect, who is awaiting trial, made anti-Semitic remarks on social media days before the shooting and posted violent messages online and displayed them on his van. He also called immigrants “invaders,” and claimed that Jews are “the enemy of white people.”
When Trump later wanted to visit the city, Bend the Arc, a Jewish partnership for justice, published an open letter telling the president he was not welcome in Pittsburgh.
“Our Jewish community is not the only group you have targeted,” the letter said. “You have also deliberately undermined the safety of people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Yesterday’s massacre is not the first act of terror you incited against a minority group in our country.”
Nazis’ hatred wasn’t limited to the Jews
The Anti-Defamation League has taken notice of the increase in intolerance. The ADL now offers teachers’ guides to help students learn about and discuss the ideas at the intersection of anti-Semitism and white surpremacy. History also teaches the lesson. Hitler not only demonized Jewish people; he also fanned the flames of hatred against anyone not defined as a member of the “Aryan race.” Such people were considered “unworthy of life.”
“Everyone talks about the 6 million Jewish people that were killed, meanwhile the total number was actually 11 million when you include gays, Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses and anyone that the Nazis did not like,” said Atty Garfinkel-Berry, the director of Northern Nevada Hillel, an organization that helps Jewish students.
She said anti-Semitism isn’t new in Nevada. Jewish people have experienced anti-Semitic sentiment in rural areas of Nevada long before the Trump presidency, she said.
From concentration camps to detention centers
Stefanie Seltzer, a Holocaust survivor in Chico, Calif, recalled a talk she gave at a high school in Palm Desert, Calif., a school where nearly half the pupils are Hispanic. She said she was surprised when students instantly understood the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust because they also have been targets of discrimination.
Seltzer was a child in Poland during the Holocaust. She was smuggled out of a ghetto and escaped being sent to the concentration camps. Seltzer also sees parallels between what happened in the run-up to the Holocaust and the racism and anti-Semitism of today.
Recent incidents involving undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers also remind Malmed of the events in Europe during World War II. From 1940 to 1945, the Nazis shipped trainloads of Jews to concentration camps and to extermination camps like Auschwitz-Birkinau in Poland. On arrival, Jewish children were separated from their parents.
“[Today], they’re not called concentration camps, they’re called detention centers,” said Malmed, the Reno Holocaust survivor. “What is the difference? Mothers are separated from their children and I was separated from my parents.”
Rhetoric may inspire acts of violence
From the day he announced his candidacy in 2016, Trump has railed against Mexican immigrants. He said Mexico is not “sending us their best people.” Instead, he said, they are exporting drug dealers, rapists and criminals. He promised to build a “big, beautiful” wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, an issue he has returned to again and again over the last four years.
Trump characterizes undocumented immigrants as an “invasion.” In August of 2019, a man who was apparently targeting Hispanic people shot and killed 22 shoppers at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Tx. The suspect, Patrick Cruises, released a manifesto online stating the white race was being replaced and that Hispanic people have “invaded” Texas.
Swastikas appear on campus, synagogues
Sightings of Nazi symbols also have become more common.
Since the 1940s, swastikas have been recognized as a despised symbol of hate. During the last few years the crooked cross has turned up outside synagogues in Reno and elsewhere. Swastikas also have been scrawled on walls at the University of Nevada, Reno’s buildings and residential halls.
Emily Bobrowky, a UNR junior majoring in biomedical engineering, said she is nervous about wearing her hamza – a star of David necklace – after seeing the swastikas drawn on surfaces in residence halls. She said education is essential to help fight anti-Semitism, yet it’s not routinely taught in schools. She is enrolled in a “Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies” class, she said, but the class focused on the Holocaust for less than a week and moved on to another case of genocide.
“While it is good at we are talking about other genocides and recognizing that there are other ones, the Holocaust is super important,” said Bobrowky. “It is a big precursor to the rest of these genocides. So, I honestly think it should be a class on its own. It’s just so frustrating that people don’t understand it.”
Knowledge of the Holocaust may be fading in public memory as the decades pass. A recent national survey of people under the age of 40 commissioned by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. In the Nevada portion of the survey, 54% of respondents were unaware of the magnitude of the Holocaust and 43% could not name even one of the 40,000 camps and ghettos that were part of Germany’s imprisonment and extermination system. Other Nevada findings: 15% placed the blame for the Holocaust on the Jews themselves and 13% of the young Nevadans surveyed thought neo-Nazi beliefs “are acceptable.”
Survivors say hatred must be opposed
Other racist symbols, such as the Confederate battle flag, often turn up at white supremacist gatherings.
There’s also been a backlash from those who condemn such symbols. Around the nation, members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups have been pressuring officials to remove Confederate symbols and statues from public places. The Confederate battle flag this year was banned from U.S military bases, NASCAR events and other venues where it was once tolerated. Statues of Confederate leaders have been removed or toppled by demonstrators.
Malmed and Seltzer noted that people who espouse anti-Semitism and white supremacy are in the minority, but so were the Nazis in mid-1930s’ Germany. They said the two ideologies go hand-in-hand, and people who see intolerance should speak out against it. Hatred of different groups may begin with anti-Semitism, they said, but it doesn’t end with the Jews.
“It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not alone,” said Seltzer. “Some people have faced other kinds of bias.”
“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.”— Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who opposed the Nazis.