The Allies entered Auschwitz 76 years ago this week, far too late for the 1.1 million men, women, children, and babies, nearly all of them Jews, who had been murdered there in the previous five years. Among the dead were my father’s parents, sisters, and brothers, who had died in the Auschwitz gas chambers the previous spring. The camp’s liberation came too late for my father as well. Ten days earlier, he had been sent on a forced march to the west, ending up at the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria. Not until May 1945 did the US Army’s 80th Infantry Division reach Ebensee. By then, my father, who was 19, was nearly dead. The Americans arrived just in time to save his life.
In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated Jan. 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The occasion will be marked by many memorial and educational events, online this year because of the pandemic. Doubtless there will be words of tribute to the dwindling band of survivors like my father, who is now 95.
Yet for much of his life, my father didn’t think of himself as a “Holocaust survivor.” The term itself only came into use in the late 1970s, and in any case he, like most survivors, spent the decades after the war engaged in the business of living: finding work, joining communities, getting married, raising a family. Not until he was nearly in his 50s would my father have considered “Holocaust survivor” to be an identity, let alone one with a unique moral and historical resonance.
But it was different for the survivors’ children. We grew up with it.
Unlike my father, whom I never knew to dwell on what had happened to him during the Holocaust, I barely remember a time when awareness of his experience didn’t haunt me. From early childhood, I knew that my father’s family had been murdered by Jew-haters. I vividly recall myself as a little boy, paging again and again through a book with photographs from the Nazi era, gripped by the understanding that they were connected to my family history. When I was in second or third grade, I would write “Hitler” on the sole of my shoe, so that I could obliterate the name as I walked.
I have been conscious of my identity as the child of a Holocaust survivor virtually all my life. That identity has affected me in multiple ways, above all, perhaps, when it comes to my political and civic values.
My most deeply rooted ideological conviction is a deep distrust of coercive government. Since my teens I have been a libertarian-leaning conservative, an outlook molded by my knowledge that the horrors of the Holocaust were engineered by government — by a totalitarian regime empowered to act with impunity and supported by a vast, intrusive bureaucracy. That some government is necessary I accept, but too much government, in my view, will always be a graver threat than too little. Power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton famously observed. The Holocaust is the ultimate demonstration of how murderous the corruption of a too-powerful state can become.
A related conviction is my intense antipathy to glorifying politicians. I realize that public support is vital in a democratic republic, yet there is an intoxicating derangement in crowds that gives me the creeps. The surging, enthusiastic adoration that political figures as different as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Sarah Palin inspired in their followers filled me not with admiration, but with something closer to alarm. More sinister by far, to my mind, was the cult of personality that formed around Donald Trump. In no way do I liken American democracy today to what occurred in Germany in the 1930s. All the same, I have never been able to see images of mass rallies, even rallies for causes I admire, without a sense of foreboding.
Equally menacing is an obsession with race and racial distinctions. Hitler’s Germany deemed “Aryans” the highest race and Jews the lowest. In their fanaticism on the subject, the Nazis demonized Jews, denied them legal rights, deprived them of their livelihoods, drove them from their homes, and finally destroyed them by the millions. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I consider all racial categories fundamentally illegitimate. I abhor the labeling and sorting of Americans by race. “Classifications and distinctions based on race or color,” argued the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a 1947 brief, “have no moral or legal validity in our society.” That has always been my position. It makes me heartsick that 50 years after the civil rights movement, America’s leading institutions have become more race-obsessed than ever.
I’m sure that some of the stands I take in public-policy debates have been influenced by my experience growing up with a father who survived the death camps and being raised in a community that was home to other survivors. I fervently opposed the Bush administration’s reliance on torture to extract information from Al Qaeda detainees, for example. I have always condemned the scapegoating of immigrants, whether it came from the left or from the right. I have no patience with foreign-policy “realists” who downplay human rights in dealing with other governments.
Above and beyond politics, however, my lifelong awareness of the Holocaust has made it impossible for me not to know that human goodness is fragile. It doesn’t come naturally but must be honed and practiced, etched into our nature one good deed at a time. Civility and civilization are only veneers, stretched like a bandage over an ugly wound. More easily than we like to think, that bandage can be pulled off, exposing the putrescence beneath. It was pulled off in Europe in the middle of the 20th century, and the consequences were diabolical — for the world, for the Jews, for my father and his family. Those consequences are never far from my mind. They shape my thinking to this day.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Elements of this column were adapted from Arguable, his weekly e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bitly.com/Arguable.