In 1996, a bit more than twenty-five years ago, Jonah Goldhagen wrote a book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. A few years later, Sheldon Hirsh followed with a similar book, The Bugs Are Burning. In these works, and many similar volumes researched by accomplished historians, there is one thing that resonates. The Germans were not the only ones involved in the murders of six million Yidden.
There were many “willing executioners.” The volunteers were tens of thousands of ordinary Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Polish citizens, and then some. They were not solely the SS or Nazis. The works debunk the standard explanations of the killings as army obedience, coercion, and the pressure or fear of repercussions.
No. The killers were not only SS men. The European citizenry who slaughtered Jews did not do it reluctantly. The executions were committed by members of the European society who were bred with an innate hatred for Jews that they may have repressed or covered in the years prior to the invasion of the Nazis into their countries and into their psyches.
These were the gentiles who, prior to the war, acted in a docile manner toward their Jewish neighbors. They did business with them in the marketplace and they may have even served as their Shabbos goyim for a few kopeks. They may have had the opportunity to express some antagonism toward their neighbors, but in most cases, until the killings occurred, they did not. Many survivors recount the total shock that they experienced when their neighbors turned on them.
These “willing executioners” were nurtured and suckled in a society where Jews were considered subhuman but tolerated; the incarnate of the devil, but bearable. When the time came to unleash their fury, the average Europeans of that persuasion transformed into the barbarians who both slaughtered their neighbors and posed for pictures to even proudly document their evil. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
We all know of the hatred bred into the Hamas operatives who have been living under the spell of Palestinian propaganda since the Six Day War. The lessons of history have taught us that the barbarism toward innocent Jews is an inherent curse of the exile throughout our history. But we might be forgetting a darker element in the ongoing crisis.
Potential, would-be “executioners” are not silent, subservient neighbors anymore. Before the onslaught of the Nazis across Eastern Europe, the average farmer did not go out and protest against Jews with signs and slogans. He was quiet, reserved, and sometimes even cordial. There were anti-Semitic politicians, but for the most part, they veiled their animosity behind closed doors, within their own spheres.
They did not come out with any moral equivalency between their anti-Semitism and the supposed Jewish actions of their current day. Besides a blood libel or two, reserved for the most virulent anti-Semites, the worst canards against Jews were those dealing with economic improprieties, maybe a religious accusation dating back some thousands of years about the killing of a god. And yet, when the time came, all of the sniping and derision, the jokes and untruths, led to the barbarism that the world had not seen for hundreds of years prior.
Eighty years have passed since the Holocaust. But time seems to make no difference. That is the blink of an eye in the view of world history. From 1648 to 1943, many years passed. There was no lesson learned. From the Inquisition to Chelminicki, nothing changed. From the massacres in Kishinev to the Holocaust-driven massacres in Ukraine, less than 40 years had passed. There was no lesson learned. I don’t expect the gentile world to learn the lessons that Goldhagen so clearly enumerates. But maybe it’s time for us to learn it.
I shudder to wonder what would happen if a Hamas or similarly anti-Semitic-led group would begin to rampage through a Jewish community in America. I tremble to think how the current vociferous anti-Semitic protestors and politicians would react. These are not the silent neighbors who bear their anti-Semitism in their hearts. They wear it loudly on their sleeves that cover the arms that bear the posters and symbols of hatred toward Jews. Has the world become more genteel to the extent that it would stop these bigots from doing anything more than march with signs? I think not.
Would politicians like Omar and Cortez stand quietly by such violence? That would be good. But they would not. They would transform themselves like the Vichy collaborators and Miklós Kállay de Nagykálló, the Hungarian prime minister during the Nazi regime, whose cooperation helped ship thousands of Yidden to their deaths.
The pogroms and anti-Semitic baiting that occurred in Crown Heights encouraged by the Sharptons and their ilk could be a “kindershpiel” compared to what could happen in the wonderful land of America. Are we smug enough to think that there cannot be more Yankel Rosenbaums some thirty years later?
Would the throngs of marauders across Europe, from London to Antwerp and across Germany and France, hold back their ammunition from joining in the pillaging of Jewish-owned businesses? Unfortunately, the hate is harbored by both those of Arab origin and even those of European origin. Even during relatively peaceful moments, they are ready, willing, and able to join the throngs of overtly violent anti-Semites during their sporadic rampages.
Will the Palestinian sympathizers who run amok on 47th Street tormenting Jewish diamond dealers suddenly hold back when egged on by more violent elements who may be lurking behind America’s liberal immigration laws? I fear not.
It’s not the first time that overt hatred for Jews has filled the streets of America en masse. With the rise of Nazi Germany back in the mid-1930s, more than 100 anti-Semitic organizations sprung up across the country, from overt allegiances with names like Friends of the New Germany and Silver Shirts to cloaking the hate with religious titles like Defenders of the Christian Faith and the Christian Front, among others.
Like the rabid pro-Arab groups today, these anti-Semites hid behind the right to free speech and they, too, were not afraid. They held rallies and paraded publicly, wearing brown shirts or other Nazi-like uniforms, carrying flags emblazoned with the notorious Nazi symbol.
The most powerful group of New York Nazis was the Nazi Bund, which had 20,000 members. They marched in full Nazi regalia: brown shirts, swastikas, and Nazi flags. Like today, the American legal system shrugged its shoulders.
There was one Jewish judge, Nathan Pearlman, a former congressman who served where, ironically, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, serves today. He thought a bit out of the box. He knew that politics alone would not stop the anti-Semites. He knew a tough Jew, Meier Suchowlański, a native of Grodna, who had many tough friends. Suchowlański shortened his name to the last five letters, and we know him as Meyer Lansky.
His Italian friends, namely Luciano, offered to help, but Lansky turned down the generosity. “It’s our fight. We can do it on our own.” He enlisted his own “chevrah.” (One was a former delivery boy for Al Capone, a Chicago thug named Jacob Rubenstein. You may know him as Jack Ruby). Jewish gangsters joined in various cities to fight the Nazis, including names like Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen. Armed with bats and other items, they attacked the rallies, broke Nazi arms, legs and ribs, and cracked skulls. The police did not get involved, and in accordance with Pearlman’s directive to Meyer’l, no one was killed. According to Lansky, “We won’t ice the bodies, only marinate them.”
Lansky recounted in an interview: “We got there in the evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. The speaker started ranting. There were only 15 of us, but we went into action. We attacked them in the hall and threw some of them out the windows. There were fistfights all over the place. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up, and some of them were out of action for months. Yes, it was violence. We wanted to teach them a lesson. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”
The era of Lansky, Bugsy and others is over. It seems that we have become even more docile and complacent than when I was a young boy in the era of the 1960s. Maybe we have had too long a period of relative calm in which we live a life that almost disavows the fact that we are still in a bitter golus. We mask it with our acceptance into the halls of power and affluence. But like the underlying hate, the underlying golus is as extant as ever.
We need great siyata diShmaya, unanimous outrage, and vociferous hishtadlus to ensure that willing collaborators are stymied and stifled wherever they are. Our enemies cannot seize the moments of silence and the apathy of an American or European community that forgets that the golus without rockets and mayhem and massacres is still a true golus, and our only hope is from Above, b’vias Moshiach Tzidkeinu.