Opinion: Asking Holocaust survivors what they think about America today

Illustration of two heads facing each other. In one head is barbed wire and in the other head is a U.S. flag.
(Hanna Barczyk / For The Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. The United Nations has begun a monthlong period of Holocaust remembrance events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. With that in mind, let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

Close readers of The Times’ Opinion pages have probably picked up on the increasing frequency with which some of our letter writers are drawing comparisons, mainly spurred by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, between the U.S. political situation now and what happened in Germany before the Nazis came to power in 1933.

Are these comparisons appropriate? Over the years we’ve published some letters from readers who identified themselves as Holocaust survivors — so as The Times’ letters editor, I decided to ask them what they think.


To be clear, what these comparisons have not done is equate the mass murder and devastation of World War II to what’s happening here right now. What these letter writers have worried about is that the United States may be backsliding toward authoritarianism in ways similar to pre-Nazi Germany, which was a representative democracy (albeit a young, unstable one) with a vibrant intelligentsia before the fascists came to power. The embrace of racist autocracy and the marginalization and dispossession of German Jews were not enabled because of any single, sudden change — rather, it took long-existing antisemitism along with years of conspiracy theorizing, fear mongering and violence to set the stage for what would culminate in the murder of 6 million Jews less than 80 years ago.

It is that pre-fascist period of setting the stage for catastrophe that has been the subject of comparisons to our political situation now. Some readers bristle at this kind of commentary, saying it is based more on partisan hysteria than historical fact.

These are excerpts of what some of the Holocaust survivors to whom we reached out have to say. For videos featuring the survivors, produced as a part of our Hear Me Out series by my colleague Karen Foshay and her team at L.A. Times Studios, and the full essays, click here.

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‘Never again’ is now

My parents left Germany for France in 1935; I was born there in 1938. Too many of our relatives were less fortunate, and they were gassed in the camps.

For a time I wanted to believe that the Nazi era was a ‘never-again’ episode orchestrated by some twisted fascist monsters. I wanted to believe that America had saved Europe from the worst evil in modern times.


Alas, “never again” is now.

I fear not enough good people remember history. Why are so many Republicans on board with Trump, even a year after the Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt? I worry about political things such as the large number of judges Trump has appointed, but there are also other changes that deeply concern me.

I wonder about doctors who refuse to call COVID-19 the killer that it is, especially of poor Americans and people of color. My grandmother was a victim of the Nazification of medicine. She had leukemia. It was treatable with transfusions that she received regularly at a blood bank in Frankfurt. After the Nuremberg Laws, she was denied pure Aryan blood. Her oldest son stayed in Germany to donate blood to her even though he had received an exit visa to America. She feared he wouldn’t get out in time.

My grandmother stopped eating so her son would leave. She died.

— Josie Levy Martin, Santa Barbara

Jan. 6 brought back terrible memories

For 84 or 85 years, these memories buried themselves in the back recesses of my brain. Jan. 6, 2021, caused a tsunami of memories to come back to the forefront.

Terror, insecurity, fright — will America’s Constitution and freedoms be overturned? Will we become a dictatorship?


Tyrants thrive on chaos, incitement to overthrow government, fraud, mass hysteria, lies, manipulation and rallies. That is their playbook. I can still hear Hitler’s rallies with thousands yelling, “Sieg Heil,” until our radio was confiscated. Will the legislators who have blatantly ignored their oath of office let their conscience guide them?

— Marianne Bobick, Gainesville, Ga.

The comparisons get so much wrong

What comparable state of affairs exists in America? Instead of the Weimar splinter parties, our current moment is Manichean — each of our two parties thinks it is the democratic one and the other elitist, racist or sexist.

And consider the anarchy today! At the moment, schools seem to be barely functioning; some close regularly because there are not enough teachers. This is the antithesis of Hitler’s Germany, where regimented children, marching into the classroom, were indoctrinated into fascism. For Hitler, discipline was the order of the day, whereas the Trump administration was curiously disorganized, firing its own personnel left and right. At the same time, the Biden administration seems to be paralyzed when it comes to education.

Finally, it should be made clear that democracy is not just a voting issue. One can, after all, vote in, fairly and squarely, a fascist party. It has happened all over Latin America. Rather, as Alexis de Tocqueville warned, democracy only works when you have a reasonably educated public. Today, when we have eighth-graders who can’t read and write, when civics courses have disappeared and when geography is literally untaught, it is very hard to have a meaningful democracy in the U.S.


Our first aim should be to restore primary education as well as a meaningful media in which there is real discussion of the issues. As for antisemitism, how can it be avoided at the same time Israel has become such an object of hatred?

— Marjorie Perloff, Pacific Palisades

Too few Americans know about the Holocaust

Much in today’s world concerns me. I sympathize deeply with refugees trying to flee poverty and violence south of the U.S. border. They want to come to the United States for a better life, but how can this country take in millions of people who would come here if they could? This is a difficult question to ask that is just as difficult to answer.

I am also concerned that fewer and fewer people are learning about the Holocaust. My father, mother, sister and I fled Europe before the mass killing began, and I have fond memories of our journey across the Atlantic, a period that my mother recalled as the best vacation of her life. But I also remember my mother and father begging their parents to flee. My grandparents died in the concentration camps.

My immediate family was not killed, but the Holocaust still happened to us. We lost everything we had in Germany and were forced to make new lives for ourselves. I feel it is important for people to know about this, the different ways Jews were victimized. Even though my parents did not talk about the Holocaust with us much at all, and though I am proud to be an American, I believe we must know about this history today.


— Betsy Kaplan, Covina

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