Opinion: The lessons of the Holocaust are alive in the American spirit

The acting director of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation on the meaning of July Fourth.

A rendering of the tree at Philly's future Holocaust memorial

A rendering of the tree at Philly's future Holocaust memorial

Courtesy Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation
Eszter_Kutas

Eszter Kutas currently serves as the project lead and acting director for the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation through her employer Fairmount Ventures, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit and public sectors in Philadelphia.


In the weeks leading up to July Fourth — the holiday in which we celebrate our country’s founding principles of human freedom and dignity — we’ve been faced with stark images of indignity: migrant children being separated from their parents in the name of lawfulness and national protection.

While we should be relieved that this practice has been changed, it is perhaps equally heartening to see how the country rallied for the cause of justice.

The commonly used disclaimer “this is not about politics” rings true in this case; leaders from all ends of the political spectrum spoke out about the injustices wrought at our Southern border. This is about children, parents, and the profound bond between them. It is about toddlers who were wrested from the arms of caring fathers, and young mothers who didn’t know where their children had been taken.

I am the director of an organization that’s leading the development of a new public Holocaust memorial plaza in the heart of Philadelphia. I’m also a mother, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary, and the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. Through my work, my personal experiences, and the experiences of my family, I’ve learned to recognize infringements on the dignity of human life.

The Holocaust, and terms like “concentration camps,” were frequently invoked as comparisons to the migrant crisis. To many, this seemed an inappropriate and hyperbolic comparison – after all, the migrant crisis did not, in any way, constitute a mass genocide.

But this argument – that we must only draw these parallels when the severity of the atrocity “matches” that of the Holocaust – is its own race to the bottom. Preserving the lessons of the Holocaust doesn’t just mean speaking out against mass murder; it also includes rallying against unjust and inhumane treatment, even if it doesn’t amount to the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Historically, the greatest danger of actions like forcibly separating children from their parents is that it pushes the boundaries of normalcy.

As a society, if we accept that, as a matter of law, young children can be torn from the arms of their parents, what have we become? And, more importantly, what will we become? History has repeatedly shown that when a society consents to comparatively “innocuous” human rights abuses against the weak, it often allows the needle to be pushed further and further toward atrocity.

I’m reminded of the Theresienstadt Camp, which was built in German-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1941.

The camp held well over 100,000 Jewish prisoners over the course of the war, many of whom were ultimately sent to extermination camps. All the while, it was frequently held up as a false, propagandistic example of the “fair and humane” treatment that detainees were receiving in the camps.

One of the more touching stories that survives the Holocaust is that of a group of children in Theresienstadt who received the sapling of a silver maple tree. Despite knowing that they would not live to see the tree mature, they nurtured it, hoping it would survive the war and provide shade to future generations in a humane society. In just a few months, a sapling of this original iconic tree will be planted at the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, which will be opening on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this Fall. The tree will represent not just life and hope for future generations, but the innocence of the children, and society’s imperative to defend the defenseless.

To remember the Holocaust and its victims is to understand a vast, worldwide moral failing — one which allowed for the systematic degradation of human rights among the most vulnerable. The fact that millions of people have banded together to express their outrage by the injustices at our border — and ultimately effect a policy change — is an encouraging sign that these lessons are alive in the American spirit.

As we look ahead to July Fourth, we must remain vigilant and committed to identifying atrocities that exist both in America and the world at large, and fight to prevent these misdeeds from escalating further.

Amid America’s two and a half centuries of prosperity, the country has faced many moral crises of its own. If we can continue to learn from moral errors of the past and fight against any encroachment upon life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we truly have a holiday worth celebrating.

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