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November 06, 2018

One Week After Pittsburgh: A Former Auschwitz Museum Employee’s Perspective

By Hannah Sattler

The Shabbat morning prayers begin with these two words: Sh’ma Yisrael. The Shema prayers serve to awaken the individual and the community for Shabbat service. This prayer is also said at the end of the day, and it is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words. On October 27th, these sacred words—uttered to begin the day—tragically and unwittingly were also made the last for 11 worshippers of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Hopefully, the violence wrought during this Shema will awaken not just Jews, but all Americans, to the antisemitism that continues to plague the globe, including here at home. Antisemitism is one of the oldest and most durable forms of hatred in the world. Although we often look to the Holocaust as the most brutal manifestation of anti-Jewish hate, it did not mark antisemitism’s beginning, or its end.        

I understand this better than most. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work in the research department at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, on the grounds of the most infamous Nazi concentration camp. I left that place a changed person, and my outlook on the state of global politics, and its evils, darkened significantly. As part of my work, I spent months researching contemporary antisemitism in Germany and Poland. I learned that antisemitism is not only alive, but strong, and that ancient epithets and dangerous mischaracterizations of “the Jew” are being rebranded for a 21st century audience.

In fact, these age-old stereotypes are becoming normalized. White nationalists and the alt-right use terms like “globalist” as a code for Jews, playing off and feeding the belief that Jews are conspiring to take over the world. Coded messages from politicians and other leaders—whether intentional or not—feed the hate and paranoia of those who continue to use Jews as the scapegoat for their own fears, culminating over in violence like what we saw in Pittsburgh.

After working at Auschwitz, I spent my free time exploring the field of contemporary antisemitism. I found that most academic work on this topic is confined to Europe. In the past decade, Poland, Hungary and others appeared in the news under headlines of rising antisemitism. However, the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit on anti-Semitic incidents in the United States found a 57% increase in 2017. This is the single largest increase since the audit’s inception in 1979. In a dark foreshadowing, the day before the Pittsburgh shooting, the ADL released a study on the use of social media to promote anti-Semitic beliefs. Traditional social media—and, even more so, fringe platforms (think an entire Twitter application dedicated to white nationalist users)—have become hotbeds for anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Pittsburgh shooter utilized social media platforms to express his white nationalist and anti-Semitic views, including in the moments before he began shooting, helping federal prosecutors to file hate crime charges against him.

Despite my knowledge of Jewish history and antisemitism, I was shocked by the Pittsburgh shooting. Ironically, I was visiting with friends from my time in Poland when the news broke.

In a recent Forbes op-ed, former president of Human Rights First, Mike Posner, analyzed the importance of labeling antisemitism as a human rights issue in light of the events in Pittsburgh. Human Rights First’s work on the topic is longstanding; in 2002, we published a report on the topic that urged the international community to confront antisemitism forcefully as a “serious violation of human rights.” Human Rights First has frequently led the effort among human rights organizations to define antisemitism in such a way.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rightsinspired largely by the destruction of the Holocaust—asserts that freedom of religion is a basic human right. Too often, however, antisemitism is portrayed as a problem for the Jewish community to address alone. The human rights community at large must formally recognize antisemitism as a human rights issue, providing much needed resources in the fight against intolerance and ignorance.            

Coming from a Jewish family, my parents did not fully approve of my choice to study the tragedies my ancestors endured, rightly concerned with how it would affect me emotionally. Yet my work at Auschwitz was filled with hope about the education we were providing—education we trusted would help prevent future genocide. And I remain filled with hope today. I hope that the world says Kaddish with the victims of this tragedy, demonstrating a universal pledge against religious-based violence. I hope that the Shema is used in the first moments of morning more often than in the last moments of life. And I hope—but, more importantly, I will fight—to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is applied to all.