An Open Letter to Whoopi Goldberg
Dear Mrs. Goldberg,
For years, I have enjoyed your movies. They have brought me joy, satisfaction, learning, and cross-cultural appreciation, mostly thanks to your brilliant acting. It was precisely my appreciation for your cinematic brilliance that led to the shock I felt when you expressed in an interview: “The Holocaust was not about race but simply man’s mistreatment of man.” Such a baseless statement is not only historically inaccurate but also emotionally traumatic.
Precisely because of my appreciation for you I have decided to tell you my family’s story in the Holocaust, the most horrific racist event in history.
My aunt Sarah lived in Frankfurt, a large city in Germany located on the Main River, from 1916-1945, after fleeing Poland in World War I. Sarah’s four children were born in Frankfurt: Shula was the eldest, then Abraham (who went by “Bubi”), Mordechai (who went by “Popel”), and little Yaakov (who gave himself the nickname “Yabuk”).
They were completely integrated in Germany. They spoke German at home, studied in German schools and became friends with the German kids in the neighborhood. The only difference between Sarah’s children and their classmates was that the kids used to go with their father to the synagogue, where he would pray and socialize with his friends and community members (in German, of course).
In the midst of their upbringing — a childhood full of community, love, and acceptance, the kids started to see racism. Some was interpersonal and some was institutional.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, their father was stopped in the street and sent to a labor camp at Dachau. He died there, as a result of inhumane sanitary conditions.
When Sarah’s youngest, little Yabuk, asked what happened to his father, Sarah didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t come up with a better explanation out of, “your dad was killed because he was a Jew.” It was a strange explanation, hard to comprehend. for a young boy. Yabuk would innocently ask, “but what’s the crime in being a Jew?”
If this isn’t racism, Mrs. Goldberg, then I’m not sure what is.
Not long after the trauma of losing their father, Sarah’s family was abruptly informed that they needed to leave their spacious home in Frankfurt and relocate to Krakow (the city they fled after World War I) overnight. Sarah, now a widow, took her three young boys. Her oldest daughter, Shula, decided to independently immigrate to Palestine. And thank God she did. That decision saved her from the tragedy that would eliminate the rest of her family.
In Krakow, too, the disease of racism reared its ugly head. Shortly after arriving, Sarah, Popel, Bubi, and Yabuk were taken from their homes and shoved into a crowded, congested train, as if they were livestock. They traveled for hours on the train and it was hard to breathe. Many of the passengers died of suffocation before they arrived at their destination: Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp. They were immediately escorted to the adjacent death camp, Birkenau. At Birkenau, the Nazis built a “murder factory” operated by “death technicians.” They systematically eliminated millions of people for the sole crime of being Jewish.
If that isn’t racism, then I’m not sure what is.
But the story of Sarah and her boys is not over yet. Once they arrived at Birkenau, they were led to the showers. It didn’t take them a long time to learn that these were not normal showers. Instead of spraying water, they sprayed Zyklon B, the fatal pesticide developed by the German to exterminate the Jews. Bubi, Poppel, and Yabuk spent their final breaths clawing at the showers’ cement walls. They screamed “help” in German, the only language they knew. No one helped them.
Mrs. Goldberg: Bubi, Poppel, and Yabuk are just three of six million. Six million of my brothers and sisters were systematically murdered as part of the most brutal racist campaign in history. A racist philosophy dictated who had a right to live, and who didn’t. Critically, it didn’t start with death camps. It started with hatred coupled with ignorance.
For many years, I served as the spokesperson for the International March of the Living, an educational event against racism in which thousands of people march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, replaying the “Death March” that led their people to their extermination just a few decades earlier. We remember the murder and racism. We celebrate that the Nazis were not able to complete their “final solution” — the extinction of the Jewish race. We celebrate life.
Mrs. Goldberg, I’ll be more than happy if you will join the next International March of the Living.