[Editor’s Note: Each year on January 27, people across the globe observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was on this day 79 years ago Nazi Germany’s largest death camp Auschwitz was liberated — by which point upwards of one million prisoners had been killed. It is on this grim occasion that the author, a Jewish cantor, reflects on the aftermath of Alabama’s killing of Kenneth Eugene Smith with the novel use of nitrogen hypoxia…]
I am an ordained Jewish cantor, a former Jewish prison chaplain, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, and co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. I write these words on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and on the morning after Alabama executed Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas — the first execution of this kind. While some may feel otherwise, the more than 3,000 members of my group L’chaim! strongly feel that the overlapping of these events merits consideration.
Ahead of Alabama’s gassing, hundreds of Jewish clergy and community leaders from across the United States delivered a letter to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey demanding a halt to the planned execution by nitrogen gas asphyxiation. That letter stated the signatories recognized that Smith was indeed guilty of his role in a murder and that prayers are lifted in honor of Elizabeth Sennett, of blessed memory, the victim in this case, and for all of those who loved and missed her.Even so, my fellow clergy and I called for a halt to all executions, particularly those by suffocation.Certainly there are members of Jewish communities who support the death penalty in concept or in practice. However, the members of L’chaim stand united in opposition to the introduction of gas suffocation as a form of execution in Alabama. While nothing can be compared to the atrocities of Nazi Germany under which millions of Jews — including my ancestors and those of many in L’chaim — were murdered, many by suffocation in sealed chambers, it horrifies countless descendants of survivors and victims that anyone would be executed using any variation of that mechanism.Indeed, the very idea of using gas for executions is an affront to the Jewish community. The Nazi legacy of experimentation to find the most expeditious way for the state to kill prisoners is an undercurrent for anyone aware of that history. It is a history that should not be repeated — not only in Alabama, but anywhere.
Smith, my longtime pen pal, suffered greatly while being gassed to death. But this was not a first, either for him or for his executioners. Alabama also tortured Smith for hours on the gurney just over a year ago, when it failed at its attempt to execute him via lethal injection. It was this same lethal injection method that Alabama carried out on International Holocaust Remembrance Day two years ago when it put to death Matthew Reeves, a man with severe and well-documented cognitive impairment.
Let there be no doubt: lethal injection itself is another direct Nazi legacy. It was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of its infamous Aktion T4 protocol, used to kill other such cognitively impaired individuals deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was brought to fruition by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler, who personally signed off on it. It is precisely this T4 protocol that is among those monstrosities condemned on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Whether it is via lethal injection, Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia, or gas chambers in other states — such as Arizona, which uses the gas Zyklon B (as employed in Auschwitz) — any method used for the state-killing of prisoners against their will continues this Nazi legacy of the same.
To put an end to these grotesque killing traditions and the cycle of violence, L’chaim’s thousands of members carry the torch of Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel. Of capital punishment, Wiesel famously stated, “Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” He added in an interview, in 1988: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”
To make matters worse, Alabama’s reinvention of the gas chamber threatens to open a Pandora’s Box of similar killing experiments elsewhere across America. Many states — such as Nebraska, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi — are eagerly waiting in the wings to observe the results of this gassing in the hope that they, too, will be able to repeat the process for other condemned human beings. An increasingly possible second Trump administration also presumably watches from the sidelines in light of its 2020-2021 federal killing spree.
And so, L’chaim will continue to send this urgent plea to all who will hear it to help sound this alarm. I fear that these messages will continue to be ignored. For the sake of all who proclaim “Never Again!,” in the hope that the world learns from the lessons of the Holocaust, I pray I am proven wrong.
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action
NOTE: This article first appeared as an op-ed in The Jurist on Jan. 26, 2024.