Opinion: On listening to Holocaust survivors as democracy retreats

Illustration of a head with barbed wire inside facing another head with the U.S. flag inside.
(Hanna Barczyk / For The Times)

Last week, The Times published four short essays by readers, including past letter writers, who identified themselves as Holocaust survivors; included were video interviews with the writers and several old family photos. We asked what they thought of an increasingly common comparison being made, including on The Times’ own letters page: that the United States today, with one of its major political parties still supporting a former president who tried to overthrow an election he lost, might be on a course similar to Germany before the Nazis were voted into power in 1933.

This is a comparison that has been made, in various forms, by several letter writers, most recently by one reader who detected fascistic undertones in the Republican National Committee’s threat earlier this month to pull out of presidential debates. Other letter writers have likened what they see as the growing acceptance of political violence among mainstream Republicans to the “brownshirts” of 1930s Germany.

Two of the survivors wrote that the U.S. was indeed on a frightening path, another said the comparisons were dubious, and the fourth did not address the comparisons directly but expressed several worries. In response, we heard from more survivors and other readers who conveyed their appreciation for keeping the Holocaust at the forefront of our collective memory. Some expressed criticism.



To the editor: As a Holocaust survivor, I was pleased to read your Jan. 22 Opinion section devoted to this subject. While most of the writers express some kind of optimism, I find my glass half empty. I am struck by the banality of evil permeating a very large percentage of American society and where it may lead.

Born in Vilnius in 1937, I along with my family could not escape before the Nazi occupation of Lithuania began in 1941. We did survive, however, first in the ghetto and then in hiding. The rest of our family was eventually murdered in Auschwitz.

After I arrived in America and absorbed the culture, I was impressed by the democratic ideals rooted in the people. They seemed so ingrained in the American psyche that I presumed they would stand forever. Racism, xenophobia and antisocial feelings existed, but their overt expression was considered unacceptable and unpatriotic.

This all came to an end when Donald Trump expressed these things out loud. His followers became excited as they could finally express themselves in the open.

Here is where we see the comparison with what happened in Germany. I always wondered how such cultured people could descend to such depths. The answer is that evil is always with us and must be vigorously suppressed. Otherwise, it permeates slowly, almost unseen, until it is there, full blown.

At first the Germans thought Hitler was just a passing fancy. Then there were more jobs. Then they felt pride in becoming a big player in the world — and then there was war, death and ruin.


I don’t propose that the U.S. will follow Germany into another Holocaust or world war. There are too many differences for that. However, our country as we know it is at risk. What we are experiencing is a frontal attack on our institutions and our Constitution. Lies are promulgated as truth and “alternative facts.”

Only we can save ourselves, if we have the will and the courage.

Michael Telerant, Los Angeles


To the editor: I was very moved by the short essays from readers who survived the Holocaust. As a 10-year-old Jewish child during this time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be born in the U.S.

However, during the 1930s and ’40s, I realized that my grandmother and great-uncle who were immigrants from Poland, and had family living there, were extremely upset when they learned from newspapers and radio broadcasts about the dire situation for the Jews who lived in Germany, Poland and other countries seized by the Nazis. This led me to start reading newspapers.

While I didn’t fully understand the horrors of what was taking place, I subsequently learned the truth about the atrocities committed against Jews in several European countries.

As a Jewish child, I became frightened that my family’s life was in danger, even though we lived in the U.S. When I heard an airplane’s engine in the sky, I ran into the house fearful that the enemy was overhead.


Sadly, antisemitism reared its ugly head in the U.S., and it was then that I was exposed to false diatribes against Jews.

After reading about the brave people who survived the Holocaust, I again realized how lucky my family was to be citizens of the U.S. during this time.

Bunny Landis, Oceanside


To the editor: I am the son of a survivor of the Auschwitz labor and death camp. I firmly believe that many mistaken conclusions are arrived at here in some of the survivors’ testimonies.

As a former Democrat, I am sorry to say that the dangerous philosophy of “the big lie” has been embraced by today’s Democratic Party.

Anyone with a basic understanding of history knows that Democrats were the party of slavery. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed with stronger support among Republicans in Congress than Democrats.


Furthermore, the Democratic Party has some issues with antisemitism. In fact, David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klax Klan, reacted positively when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) made remarks that repeated antisemitic tropes.

Richard Friedman, Culver City


To the editor: At age 70, I am too young to have been alive during the Holocaust, but I am not so old that I cannot remember the articles and books I have read both in and out of school, the movies I have seen and the relatives and friends I have spoken with regarding one of the most ugly events in world history.

Apparently, the McMinn County, Ky., school board believes sanitizing history is the best way to remember the Holocaust. It decided to ban a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel because of what it deemed as inappropriate language and the depiction of nude bodies and suicide.

How can we remember if we hide the truth?

Further, if my memory is correct, in Nazi Germany books deemed inappropriate were burned. Right now, there is currently a movement in this country to ban the teaching of certain topics that are deemed divisive or discomfiting to students. Really?

Dean Okrand, Sherman Oaks