6 Holocaust Survivors Who Fight Against Israel's Treatment of Palestinians
The Israeli government draws on the experience of the Holocaust to justify many of its policies, especially those relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many of the people who defend Israel cite the Holocaust as one of the justifications for the founding and aggressive militarism of the Jewish state. For these people, the Holocaust serves as both a reminder of Jewish history and a cautionary tale for the future. When the Jewish people had neither a nation nor a military of their own, they were nearly exterminated; now anything the Israeli state and army does is acceptable because extermination could threaten Jews again.
But some Holocaust survivors cite the Holocaust as the very reason they oppose Israeli policy; specifically, its treatment of Palestinians. These people see that oppressing Palestinians is not just unnecessary and wrong, but hypocritical for a nation founded to provide people with a refuge from oppression. For them, the lesson of the Holocaust isn't "never again" for Jews. It's never again for anyone, including Palestinians.
1. Hajo Meyer. Born in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1924, Meyer fled Germany for the Netherlands at age 14, where he went into hiding when the Nazis invaded a year later. Captured in 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. His parents died after being deported from Germany. When the war ended, Meyer returned to the Netherlands and studied theoretical physics, eventually becoming the director of the Philips Physics Laboratory. He has written several books, including The End of Judaism. In 2011, Meyer went on a 13-city speaking tour throughout the U.S. and Canada called "Never Again for Anyone."
Although initially supportive of the founding of Israel, Meyer grew not only to reject Zionism but to see it as antithetical to Judaism. Meyer rejects the way the Israeli government exploits the Holocaust and survivors to achieve its ultimate goal of “the maximum territory with a minimum number of Palestinians....They use the Holocaust to implant paranoia in their children."
Meyer criticizes Prime Minister Netanyahu for using the Holocaust to further Zionism: “And like Netanyahu did the other day in the General Assembly of the United Nations, he used the number on my arm—or the number on our arms—to defend a coming attack on Iran. They have nothing to do with each other… The Zionists have not any right whatsoever to use the Holocaust for any purpose.”
Meyer likens the experience of the Palestinians to that of Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust, “in that they are very often held up at checkpoints, or they are not allowed to move from one place to another." To Meyer, Israel's mentality bears comparison to National Socialism; he believes Israel has "given up everything that has to do with humanity, with empathy, for one thing: the state. The ‘blood and soil,’ just like the Nazis. I learned in school about blood and soil, and that’s exactly their idea, too.”
2. Hedy Epstein. Born in 1924 in Freiburg, Germany, Hedy Epstein was sent to England at 14 via the Kindertransport, which brought nearly 10,000 children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland to England during the months between Kristallnacht and the onset of WWII. After the war, Hedy returned to Germany. Her parents had perished in Auschwitz and Hedy worked on the Nuremberg medical trial. In 1948, she joined her only living relatives, an aunt and uncle, in the United States.
Epstein has been to Palestine five times since 2003, taking part in demonstrations against the Occupation, the wall, and the demolition of Palestinian homes and olive orchards. Epstein’s autobiography, Remembering Is Not Enough was published in 1999.
Epstein’s parents were anti-Zionist. Speaking about her parents’ attempt to flee Germany, Epstein said, “They were willing to go anywhere in the world, but one place they were not willing to go to was Palestine -- they were anti-Zionists.” Epstein recalls having “mixed feelings” about the founding of Israel, but eventually became staunchly opposed to Israel’s policies: “In 1982, I heard about the massacres in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon -- I wanted to know who was responsible for this, what had happened between 1948 and 1982. As I learned more, I became increasingly disturbed by the policies of Israel and its military.”
Epstein rejects the criticism lodged against her by the "mainstream, organized Jewish community." "I'm not anti-Israel, but you're not allowed to criticize Israel or else you're anti-Semitic, and if you're Jewish you're a self-hating Jew. I don't hate myself.” And she wonders why criticism of other countries is permissible while speaking about Israel is not: “You're allowed to criticize every other country, including the U.S., but not Israel, why is that?”
In a recent op-ed published in the St. Louis Dispatch, Epstein and two other members of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace wrote that their Jewish values required them to speak out against Israel’s recent actions and occupation of Gaza:
“As Jews, many of us were raised with values of social justice, standing up to oppression and for the 'little guy,' and remembering anti-Semitism and pledging to stop it. That is why we are calling on the St. Louis Jewish community to join us and speak out against the Israeli government’s occupation and bombing of Gaza.”
Like Meyer, Epstein rejects the way Judaism is used in the name of Zionism: “The Israeli government’s actions happen far too often in the name of protecting Judaism, thereby conflating Zionism with Judaism. As Jews, we must not let the Israeli government use our heritage to excuse its morally unexcusable actions. Our Jewish values will not let us.”
3. Suzanne Weiss. Born in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Weiss was sent by a resistance organization to Auvergne, where she lived in hiding with a peasant family. Her parents did not survive, and after the war, Weiss left France. She now lives in Canada, and is a member of Not In Our Name: Jewish Voices Against Zionism and of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.
The solidarity that saved Weiss’ life inspires her solidarity with Palestinians:
“As a child in France, I survived the Holocaust because a strong resistance was organised. Thousands of people – Christians, Jews and Muslims – joined the fight for freedom against the French fascist Vichy government. They struck powerful blows against racism, whose impact endures in France today. They organised a network to save Jewish people. That's why I am here today…. For me, as for many Jews today, the memory of the Holocaust inspires us not to support war and oppression but to work for solidarity and freedom – in this case, freedom for the Palestinians.”
She sees those who risked their lives to save Jews as descendants of a “tradition of universalism — a spirit of solidarity with all humanity. This is a proud Jewish tradition — the tradition of my family.” And this universalism, this lesson of the Holocaust, requires speaking out against Israel’s policies: “In terms of Hitler’s Holocaust, its meaning is ‘never again’ — but not just with regard to Jews. It means ‘never again for humankind.'”
Weiss sees both differences and similarities between Nazism and Israeli policies: “The tragedy of Palestine is, of course, different from the Holocaust. Israel has no gas chambers. Its government does not strive to kill all the Palestinians. Israel's intention is, instead, to take the Palestinians' homeland and property and to deprive them of civil and human rights.”
But, Weiss says, “Like the Nazis, the Israel government enforces collective punishment. It aims to kill enough Palestinians, to punish them sufficiently, drive them out of their homeland, so they will disappear as a people. Israel seeks to remove Palestine from the world's family of nations. That too is a form of genocide…. Every case of oppression is unique, but the struggle for justice is indivisible. As we then fought for freedom for European Jews, we now call for freedom for the Palestinians....For me, as a survivor of the Holocaust, the tragic situation in Gaza awakens memories of what I and my family experienced under Hitler – the ghetto walls, the killings, the systematic starvation and deprivation, the daily humiliations.”
She refuses to have her name and her history used to justify the very policies she opposes: “The Israel government claims its wars are waged on our behalf. That's a lie. We say, 'Not in our name.' And in increasing numbers, Jewish people join with our Palestinian brothers and sisters to demand justice for Palestine.”
4. Alfred Grosser. Born in Frankfurt in 1925, at age eight, Grosser fled Nazi Germany with his parents for Paris. His aunt and uncle died in Auschwitz. After the war, Grosser remained in Paris where he studied political science and German studies. He is considered one of the architects of French-German reconciliation after the war. Grosser won the Peace Prize of the German book trade, the Grand Prix de l’Acadèmie des Sciences morales et politiques, and the Federal Republic of Germany’s “Highest Order of Merit.” Grosser has written several books, including From Auschwitz to Jerusalem, which examines how the legacy of the Holocaust has muted criticism of Israel in Germany.
Grosser does not deny that anti-Semitism exists. He publicly criticized the Pope in 2006 “for not having spoken about Christian anti-Semitism, about prosecutions, ghettos, and burnings at the stake. His silence was the same when he spoke at Auschwitz.”
Yet Grosser objects to equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism: “Criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism have nothing to do with each other. It is rather Israel’s policies that promote anti-Semitism globally.”
Grosser sees Israel’s treatment of Palestine as illogical and a betrayal, given the history of Jewish suffering: “I was despised as a Jew by the Germans—nevertheless, after Auschwitz I believed in our common future. I do not understand how Jews today can despise others and pursue merciless policies in Israel in the name of self-defense.” Just as there were brave Germans who risked their lives to save Jews, Jews must speak out to save the lives of Palestinians: “Precisely because there had been courageous help for Jews in Germany, is it not an obligation of today’s Jews to think of the fate of other repressed and despised people?"
5. Chava Folman Raban. Born in 1924 in Kielce, Poland, Chava grew up in Warsaw, where she was active in the Zionist youth organization and in the underground anti-Nazi resistance. With blond hair, blue eyes, a perfect Polish accent, and a pseudonym, Folman Raban was able to pass as Ewa Marczinek, a Catholic, and served as a courier and liaison, smuggling weapons, money, documents, and people in and out of ghettos. In 1943, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, and then to Ravensbrueck. Folman Raban’s father and brothers died but her mother survived and the two of them moved to Mandate Palestine in 1947. Folman Raban founded a kibbutz, Beit Lohamey Ha-Getaot (the Ghetto-Fighters House), became a teacher and had three children. She died in January 2013.
An avid Israeli patriot, Folman Raban objected to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. At an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, she delivered a speech urging young Israelis to apply the lessons of the rebellion to the present, and specifically, fight to end the occupation:
“Leave in your hearts and memories a place for them [deceased resistance fighters], younger generations. For the beautiful and bold, so young, who fell in the last battle. I wish for the thousands of you before me, lives enriched with love, beauty, laughter, and meaning.
Continue the rebellion. A different rebellion of the here and now against evil, even the evil befalling our own and only beloved country. Rebel against racism and violence and hatred of those who are different. Against inequality, economic gaps, poverty, greed and corruption….
…. Rebel against the Occupation. No, it is forbidden for us to rule over another people, to oppress another [people]. The most important thing is to achieve peace and an end to the cycle of blood[letting]."
6. Stephane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1927. When he was 8 he moved with his family to France. He joined the resistance against the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy government in France and escaped to London, where he met Charles de Gaulle. He returned to France to complete a mission for the resistance but was captured by the Gestapo, which tortured him.
Hessel was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he narrowly escaped execution by switching identities with a French soldier who died of typhoid fever. He escaped from Buchenwald, but was recaptured and made to do slave labor at Dora, the giant underground plant. Hessel escaped again from a train bound for Belsen. After the war Hessel returned to France, helped draft the Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became an honorary Ambassador of France.
In 2010, Hessel’s book Time for Outrage (Indignez-vous), which had helped inspire the French resistance, was republished, sold 4.5 million copies in 35 countries and helped inspire Occupy Wall Street and protest movements in Greece, Spain and Israel. Hessel died in February 2013 at the age of 86.
As he explained on Democracy Now!, the stability and survival of Israel depends on peace with the Palestinians: “The future of Israel depends, in my mind, on finding a way to have a neighbor with the Palestinians who can be a good and pleasant neighbor with whom one can work.” He viewed the occupation not as a violation of Jewish values but self-destructive: “as long as one occupies that country, that makes this terrible business of Cast Lead on Gaza—those things are horrifying to my mind. And leadership in Israel by people like Netanyahu and Lieberman is just against all basic Jewish and democratic value.” When asked during a PBS News Hour interview for an example of a modern state "violating the ideals that World War II was fought around," Hessel responded: “To me, what brings my outrage to one particular spot of this world is, of course, the way the Israeli government treats the Palestinians. I consider that as a violation of international law.”