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Americans Must Remember History When Resisting Trump's Discriminatory Policies

April 28th 2017

Natalie Zarowny

Do we as Americans have a moral obligation to stand up to President Donald Trump’s discriminatory policies?

Donald Trump

We’ve all heard variations on the argument for supporting Trump; he was democratically elected, we should respect our sitting president, he deserves a chance to lead, etc.

But many of Trump's policies go beyond politics as usual.

His sweeping ban targeting Muslims — now embroiled in a court dispute — heightens policy to moral matter, one reminiscent of the darkest era in modern history, the Holocaust. Specifically, we're reminded of the stories of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews.

More than 26,000 non-Jews from 44 countries and nationalities have been officially honored for their heroic efforts during the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These rescuers are recognized by the state of Israel and Yad Vashem Holocaust World Remembrance Center as the Righteous Among the Nations.

There are many famous examples of rescuers — from the Dutch workers who hid Anne Frank and her family to Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse who rescued thousands of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.

Irena Sendler

There are also thousands of stories not as well-known. Like Harry Cybulski; a retired high-school teacher I met in Flint, Michigan who was hidden in a small village in France by a farmer and his wife.

"We definitely owe our lives to them," he told me.

Harry’s mother took him and his sister to Fontenay-en-Parisis in Northern France a few months after the Nazis invaded Paris. Harry was five.

Harry Cybulski with his mother and sister

“On the farm we weren’t hidden. We were told you can go to school and you can leave the farm but don’t tell anyone who you are and don’t talk Yiddish,” he says. “I use the expression ignorance is bliss. I didn’t really know the danger we were in.”

While Harry and his sister hid in the village, their parents were killed at Auschwitz. As an adult Harry returned to Fontenay-en-Parisis. In the mid-90s he found out from a former classmate everyone in the village knew he and his sister were Jewish, and kept it a secret. Furthermore, there were other hidden Jews.

“I can still feel the back of my neck, the sensation I got when I found out that we owed our lives to a whole village."

As someone who experienced Hitler's rise first-hand, Harry doesn't believe he's being dramatic when he warns others about the risks posed by Trump's presidency. 

“It definitely strikes a chord with me. I’m thinking most Americans aren’t taking it seriously. If I said that about Trump becoming Hitler they would laugh at me. But he got elected! He didn’t take over by force.”

Historians and scholars have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why rescuers like those who saved Harry and his sister are just a fraction of the millions who stood by and did nothing.

In Holocaust studies those people are often referred to as bystanders, or onlookers.

Part of the reason people refused to help is because of how dangerous it was.

“No matter where they were or what the conditions were, it took enormous courage to rescue any Jews. Because if you were discovered that was it,” Murray Schwartz, emeritus Holocaust studies professor at Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told me.

Imprisonment, deportation, and execution were all consequences of being discovered hiding a Jew. Still, as exemplified by rescuers, there were people who went against the norm and risked everything.

“When I read about rescuers, almost all of them didn’t have a difficult moral choice."

"They almost always say the same thing; it was the right thing to do. They didn’t have to agonize or think very hard about it. They just felt that they needed to do it,” says Schwartz.

American University assistant professor Chris Edelson wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun about federal employees’ actions after President Trump’s first immigration order. The title says it all: “Ordinary Americans carried out inhumane acts for Trump.” Edelson gives examples; a 5-year-old child handcuffed and separated from his mother, an elderly woman detained and denied use of a wheelchair, and a mother handcuffed for more than 20 hours even when using the restroom. He doesn’t have to mention the words ‘Nazis’ or ‘Hitler’ to make parallels to the Holocaust starkly clear; “​Neither Donald Trump nor Steve Bannon personally detained any of the ​more than 100 people​ ​held at airports... They relied on assistance.”

Facing difficult moral choices is no longer a “what if” situation. Protesters taking to the streets and airports recognized that.

Travel ban protest

But all of us as Americans need to weigh the implications of being a bystander as discriminatory policies are enacted around us. Six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust still serves as a sobering reminder of the horrific consequences of turning a blind eye.

We must boldly oppose discrimination, especially when the victims are “the other.” Rescuers are living proof that in the face of evil humans still have the capacity to choose good. Let’s not forget Anne Frank, who wrote these words in her diary before her death in a Nazi concentration camp.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart," she said.