Most Jews celebrate certain holidays, and most have special feelings about Israel. But the one unifying sentiment of just about every Jew is that the Holocaust must never happen again – anywhere, to anybody. The gratifying thing is that other people are genuinely on the same page. Some of them are in our own backyard.
Last year, Santa Ana residents reeled as the annual report from the OC Human Relations Commission revealed that hate crimes in Orange County had jumped 14 percent in 2011 from the previous year. At the same time, reports indicated a rise in anti-Semitism amid the California State University and University of California systems, including incidents of anti-Semitism on Orange County campuses. Many people wondered how to combat the dangerous impact of discrimination, bigotry and hatred.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s “The Courage to Remember: the Holocaust 1933-1945” traveling exhibit strives to do just that, empowering generations to resist ignorance and fight discrimination. The exhibit came to Santa Ana from February 1to 15, with a special opening ceremony on January 31. Presented by the Santa Ana Police Department and the Foundation for California, the exhibit features more than 200 exclusive photographs that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, offering powerful insight into the Holocaust through four distinct themes: Nazi Germany, 1933-1938; Moving Toward the “Final Solution,” 1939-1941; Annihilation in Nazi-occupied Europe, 1941-1945; and Liberation, Building New Lives.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people, including dignitaries representing governments from Orange County and around the globe and yours truly, attended a reception at the Santa Ana Police Department. The message was simple: remember and educate others, so that an event as horrific as the Holocaust never takes place again.
“Oftentimes, history goes by us, and we don’t even realize it,” said Carlos Rojas, the acting police chief of Santa Ana. Like other speakers, he encouraged young people, such as a cohort from Santa Ana High School who attended the reception, to see the exhibit. “Make that commitment and make sure that these things don’t happen again. They happened because of actions and inactions of leaders throughout the world.”
Holocaust survivor Elaine Geller of Sherman Oaks, who as a child in Poland lost several family members yet survived Nazi concentration camps, chose not to dwell on her experience, but the lessons of it. She explained to the crowd why she tells her story through the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which produced the traveling exhibit.
“To be quiet in the face of evil is to give Hitler a victory,” she said.
She got a chance at the reception to meet Antonio Mendez, 90, of Westminster, who as a young machine gunner with the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division, took part in the liberation of a camp at Nordhausen, Germany, and spotted it on an exhibit map. He received both Silver and Bronze stars for his service in World War II.
“I feel for them,” he said of survivors like Geller. “The best thing is education. It’s what will help everyone, so that things like this never happen again.”
The exhibit yielded some controversy, mostly because of the backing of French railway company SNCF, which helped transport Jews rounded up in World War II from France to Germany. One of the panels in the exhibit expresses the company’s “sorrow and regret.”
Perhaps the most touching words came from German Consul General Dr. Bernd Fischer, who “couldn’t imagine that people around me were responsisble for such a great atrocity, the same German civilization responsible for such great art, music and literature. But there are growing Jewish communities in Germany now, because people have fled other countries like the Former Soviet Union.”
He concluded, “What it means is that Hitler hasn’t had his victory. I hope that my kids and grandkids will find Jewish life a normal part of Germany.”