In the desperate days of April 1945, tortured and emaciated inmates from virtually every Nazi-occupied nation clung to life at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, wondering if they would be shot or starved to death before liberation. They secretly sewed a flag to give to American soldiers who, they prayed, might save them. On May 5, their prayers were answered, and a unique American flag was presented to U.S. Army Col. Richard Seibel of Defiance, Ohio. He flew that flag for a month over the liberated camp.
Today, we will lead 150 Jews from around the world to pay homage to one Mauthausen inmate, Simon Wiesenthal, and unveil a plaque that quotes him: “Hopes lives when people remember.”
Our ceremony occurs just a day after a domestic terrorist attacked a different ceremony welcoming another child into the Jewish faith. Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue was turned into a charnel house by a white supremacist who murdered 11 worshippers and wounded six people. He transformed anti-Semitic social media rants and fantasies into a horrific reality, shouting “all Jews must die” as he was arrested.
From David Franks, an 18th-century merchant who established the trail linking Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, to polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, Jews have made Pittsburgh a better place by cultivating their “Tree of Life” — in Hebrew, “Etz Hayim.” It has been nurtured by successive generations.
Now the city’s Jewish community will begin to heal from Saturday’s massacre, helped by supportive words and deeds of decent people everywhere. But what about our nation as a whole?
For the “Tree of Life” that is America to persevere and flourish, we must shout “Never again!” to organized hatreds, incubated by the internet. We must take on the extremists from the alt-Right and from Antifa on the Left; we must struggle to debate ideas and policies, not demonize our neighbors. If we fail to take on the bullies and extremists, we may be at the beginning of what has happened to Europe. If violent hate crimes are not stopped, we fear that “the worst is yet to come.”
President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE’s statement in Indianapolis condemning the anti-Semitic attacks is certainly welcome. The president condemned the synagogue attack as “pure evil,” observing: “It’s a terrible, terrible thing, what’s going on with hate in our country and, frankly, all over the world, and something has to be done.”
Yet, he must go beyond words, however heartfelt.
We urge the president to convene immediately an emergency meeting of religious and moral leaders to help stop America’s slide into polarizing divisions, hatreds and political extremism. In the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., martyred 50 years ago, faith leaders should convene at the White House and take the lead to bring our beloved nation back from the brink. Whatever the initial skepticism, the president must find ways to overcome it.
A poll to be released in a few days by the Simon Wiesenthal Center will show that a plurality of Americans believes “a new civil war” rupturing our nation is a real possibility. Our challenge to is come together to ensure that we awaken before our worst forebodings come to fruition.
The “Mauthausen” American flag was donated by the late Col. Seibel to our Museum of Tolerance. It had 13 stripes, symbolizing the original 13 colonies — but none of the camp’s inmates knew how many states there were at that time, so they sewed 56 stars. “Clearly,” Seibel once told us, “those tottering between life and death were sustained by what our flag stood for — everything the Nazis had stolen from them and wanted to take from the rest of us. Those ‘Stars and Stripes’ were all about America’s potential.”
Will we and our leaders, Democrat and Republican, earn our stripes in defense of our values — or will we cower before evil-doers who want to destroy this blessed nation?
The Pittsburgh massacre is the latest tragic challenge to all Americans. We must take heart from Simon Wiesenthal’s courage and from Richard Seibel’s wisdom, to prevent more such evil.
Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization named for the famed Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the center and director of its Global Social Action programs.