Pell University Fellow Reflects On The Holocaust and Current Day Antisemitism

Jules, Pell University Fellow, 2021-22

I was catching up with my close friend Caroline over the phone in late January, “There were swastikas on the bench in front of my house”, my friend said,  “and then more were drawn around my block. I didn’t know what to do at first, so I took photos, called 311, and eventually I called the police.” I imagined Caroline leaving her brownstone in the mission district of SF, to pick up avocados at her bodega down the street and turning to face one of the most widely recognized symbols of hate. How that image, while unfortunately not unfamiliar to most, still sends one in a momentary state of shock upon seeing. To draw a swastika is a deliberate act of hate, meant to shock and control.

The week before, during a Conversation Circle session, a student shared about seeing a swastika drawn on the bleachers at school. Anita, a Holocaust survivor from Belgium leading our discussion, asked what the student did in response. “I didn’t know what to do, it was sort of shocking. I took a Sharpie and scribbled it out”.  Anita reiterated the importance of being an “upstander”; a person who speaks up, who intervenes in support of someone under attack. This concept is one she makes sure resonates with each student who attends the Conversation Circle series. It was the bravery of an upstanding, non-Jewish Dutch family who chose to risk their safety to save Anita and her family, that she lives to share her testimony of survival. It was their decision to choose dignity and humanity in the face of tragedy that Anita can share her story today.  

I have a personal connection to such upstanders during the Holocaust. They were referred to as “the friendlies”, as my father describes, those non-Jews who risked their lives to help his parents escape through Siberian forests during persecution. I pause when writing that line. The upstanding action taken by a few citizens decades ago, trickles down to my telling of it, two generations later. Anita’s passionate pleas for us to carry the torch of the upstander resonates deeper, and the precarity of survival. I think of what my relationship is to the people around me, how I have a responsibility to myself and to them, for our collective well-being and survival, too.  How do I respond to hate? Is there one way? Or multiple? How do I as a single entity make a difference? I am a first-year graduate student, researching racism and discrimination, at San Francisco State University. As a budding social psychologist, I study how the individual is influenced by their environment, how their feelings and behaviors are influenced by the actual or implied presence of others. Often in social media comments on news posts on war, tragedy, or injustice, I’ll read comments like “what can I, an average citizen, do to help?!”, and I empathize. How do we learn to use the tools we’ve already been given to connect to our fellow human? Well, there are a lot of things an average citizen can do; they can write an op-ed, contact their local congress person, or volunteer like Anita and share their experience. In thinking about the work we do at the Holocaust center, I want to emphasize taking a stand, as Anita so passionately called for.

We are living in an age of the mainstreaming of antisemitism, and we must push back and fight it, first by educating ourselves. When we come across hate (which we will), we need to make it clear that it’s not acceptable to do, and to call it out. Speak up. When we hear a remark, when we see something, when we overhear an offhand joke – we must be able to speak up and say hey, that’s not ok and why. This won’t be easy; it requires growth and self-reflection. I think of Viktor Frankl’s words in Man’s Search For Meaning, that there is hope in despair, that, as Frankl stated, the salvation of man is through love, and in love. Despite the inequities of the world, and injustice and unfairness all around us, we still strive for a better shared future for humanity. I see this in the actions of my coworkers, and by the students who choose to take Anita’s story and share it with their communities. A shift IS happening, and it starts with us. Just this week, the Sesame Street Instagram account (which I highly recommend following) shared their word of the day: Upstander.

Applications for the 2022-23 University Fellowship will open this August. Please check the University Fellow page for more info.

For more information about the University Fellowship, please contact Yedida Kanfer, Director of Programming at [email protected] or 415-449-3748.

Posted by Admin on June 2, 2022

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