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'A poison': Kansas City Holocaust survivors warn anti-Semitism is spreading

KC Jewish youth say they experience anti-Semitism
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-27 11:55:21-05

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the deadliest Nazi death camp, a survivor of that camp fears history could someday repeat itself.

“It can happen again. If it happened in the 20th century, now I can see it can happen, what hate can do,” Sonia Warshawski says. The 94-year-old survived three camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1 million people were murdered. Of the millions killed during the Holocaust, the vast majority — 6 million — were Jews.

Related: 75 years after Auschwitz liberation, Holocaust survivor 'cannot keep quiet'

As a child, Judy Jacobs and her parents survived the German occupation in Budapest and six months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“Once we had been there about two months, we were all skin and bones,” says Jacobs, who now lives in Overland Park.

In her own words, Jacobs describes the awful months she survived in Bergen-Belsen:

“The Holocaust for us neither began nor ended in Bergen-Belsen,” Jacobs wrote to 41 Action News in an email. “It began as Hitler’s venom started to spread through Europe, in the 1930s. We did not learn until 1945 that our family had been murdered by the Nazis, mostly in Auschwitz. The aftermath was very traumatic. We then were rootless and homeless, having lost our family, our home and our native culture and 6 million of our fellow Jews.”

In her own words, Jacobs describes living in fear in German-occupied Budapest:

Today, Warshawski and Jacobs both feel compelled to share their stories of surviving the Holocaust. For Warshawski, that need comes from remembering the words of those lost: “They knew they were dying and they tell us, ‘remember if you make it, tell the world what took place.’”

Jacobs says she speaks about her experiences to make sure that a new generation knows of the horrors that took place and learns how to prevent them from happening again.

“I keep asking myself, haven’t we learned anything?” Jacobs says.

The fears of survivors that the atrocities of the Holocaust could happen again are rooted in the reality of modern-day anti-Semitism, experts say.

“Unfortunately, it is not in the past,” says Gavriella Geller, who serves as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/AJC in Overland Park. “It’s something that we’re dealing with pretty much on a day-to-day basis.”

Geller acknowledges a recent rash of attacks in the New York area. In December 2019, at least five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah celebration in New York, and six people died, including a police officer and the two shooters, after an attack at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey.

Survivors of the Holocaust say these events hearken back to a dark period of history.

“The way anti-Semitism now is spreading for me is unbelievable,” Warshawski says. “This is a poison which has gone on for centuries.”

“I cry,” Jacobs says. “I think it’s horrible, and for me it’s déjà vu.”

Resource: ADL H.E.A.T Map tracks anti-Semitic incidents across U.S.

The Kansas City area has seen its own acts of anti-Semitism in recent years. In April 2014, three people were shot and killed at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom in Overland Park.

Jewish Community Center shooting 2014
FILE — In this Sunday, April 13, 2014 file photo, a Kansas State Trooper stands near the location of a shooting at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kan. Three people were fatally shot at two Jewish community sites in suburban Kansas City, and an avowed white supremacist was charged in the killings. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

Six years later, Geller says the youth she speaks with in the Kansas City Jewish community face anti-Semitism often.

“A lot of times, it’s Nazi and Holocaust jokes and jokes about killing Jews,” she says. “Sometimes it comes in the form of Israel-related rhetoric. The fact is that every single Jewish high schooler that I’ve spoken with feels that they experience anti-Semitism, most of them on a semi-regular basis, in their schools.”

According to a 2019 survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee:

  • 84% believed anti-Semitism has increased over the past five years;
  • 35% said they had been the target of anti-Semitism over the past five years;
  • 75% of people who said they experienced an anti-Semitic incident in the past year did not report it.

Overland Park police say since 2017, the department has reported 11 hate crimes to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Two of those incidents were classified as “anti-Jewish." Since 2016, Kansas City, Missouri, police have reported two Jewish victims out of 150 total incidents of bias crime.

Geller says she does want to spread awareness of the hate that exists — but even more so, she wants to encourage a message of hope.

“I really do believe that it is possible to build a society that is welcoming to all faiths and deeply pluralistic, that is not tolerant but embracing of diversity,” she says.

That’s also why, after 75 years, Jacobs and Warshawski don’t just go out and share their painful past, but preach simple kindness where words matter.

“I try to put love in their hearts to help others, not to make fun of others,” Warshawski says. “This is what keeps me still going.”