In the spring of 1987, George Klein, a brilliant Swedish microbiologist, embarked on a long journey from Europe to Vancouver, Canada. Klein was a prominent cancer specialist, professor of tumor biology—a chair created especially for him—at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He wrote or contributed to over 1,000 research papers and was the recipient of numerous awards for scientific excellence. Internationally recognized, Klein regularly attended conferences that brought together leading scientists in his field.
But his purpose in the spring of 1987 was not a medical convention. He was on a more personal mission. He wanted to meet Rudolf Vrba. Vrba was a professor of neuropharmacology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He, too, was a prolific researcher, publishing over 50 papers on brain chemistry, diabetes, and cancer. But it was mere coincidence that the two were in overlapping fields. George Klein was drawn to Rudolf Vrba because of their overlapping histories. Klein had seen Vrba’s interview two years earlier in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, and it awakened in him deep and profound memories.
Forty-three years earlier, when George Klein was 19, he worked in the Jewish Council of Hungary in Budapest, the central agency of the Hungarian Jewish community. In May 1944, Klein happened upon a top-secret report describing what the Nazis planned for the Jews of Hungary. The deportations of Jews from the countryside was already in full force, and would soon commence in Budapest itself. Hungarian Jews had no idea that their destination was Auschwitz, and that Auschwitz was a death camp. They assumed they were being relocated to labor camps to serve the German war effort.
The report that Klein held in his hand, however, told a different story. In dry, matter-of-fact language, he learned of the mass killings, the selections, the gassings, the torture, brutality and inhumanity. He saw drawings and construction sketches of the ramps, gas chambers and crematoria. Klein later wrote: “Even as I read the report for the first time, it was evident to me that it represented the horrors of reality, rather than the many unrealistic lies and self-deceiving excuses that we had previously been fed from so many different sources.”
And so, armed with information that few others had, the teenager made the fateful decision that saved his life. “I hesitated until the last moment,” Klein later wrote. “It wasn’t until I saw the freight cars in front of me that I had the courage to run, despite the risk of being shot.”
Klein hid in a cellar until January 1945. No close acquaintances joined him. Given permission by his supervisor to tell immediate relatives and friends, Klein urged those closest to him to go underground, but, he wrote, “of the dozen or so people I warned, not one believed me.” Within two months, they, and most of the roughly half million Hungarian Jews who entered the cattle cars without resistance, were dead.
Vrba’s interview in Lanzmann’s film jolted Klein, reigniting powerful memories of decades past. Vrba described word-for-word the report that the 19-year-old Klein held in his hands all those years earlier. As Klein wrote: “It was immediately clear to me that the report I had been given to read under a promise of secrecy in Budapest, in May 1944, was identical to the report” Vrba recalled.
Vrba knew about the report that saved Klein’s life—because Vrba wrote it. He and his fellow Slovak friend, Alfred Wetzler, were among the few prisoners to escape from Auschwitz. Both men wrote books detailing their harrowing flight to freedom. That they survived to tell the tale is a miracle of unimaginable dimensions. They were almost captured many times. During the three days they were still in Auschwitz, hiding in a pit, they could hear above them the vicious guard dogs barking menacingly, and the SS camp guards growling murderously. On the 10-day dash to the Slovak border—without documents, a compass, or maps—they were so close to several Nazi search patrols that the Germans only had to reach out and grab the two fugitives. For some unfathomable reason, fortune reached out first, and shielded these two exceptionally heroic young men, rewarding their courage, ingenuity, daring, and valor with decades of additional life.
Vrba said that he decided to escape for two reasons: First, like anyone else, he was motivated by self-preservation. He wanted to live. Second, he was desperate to warn Hungarian Jews that time was running out. He noticed the Nazis building a new crematorium and extending the railroad tracks directly to the gas chambers. He surmised that these preparations were for the Hungarian Jewish community that had so far avoided extermination because Germany had not yet invaded Hungary. He overhead SS troops joking that they were awaiting “Hungarian salami.” At all costs, Vrba thought, Hungarian Jews must not get on those trains. Once the human cargo arrived at its destination, it would be too late.
Vrba later explained that the Nazi death machine depended on deception. The Jews needed to believe that they would be treated well upon their arrival; otherwise, they would resist. The entire apparatus of death rested on the calm, orderly transfer of the Jews of Europe to the death camps. Vrba often said that even in Auschwitz, the German insistence on subterfuge continued up to the gas chambers themselves. Upon disembarking, the condemned still thought they were there to work. Only when they were jammed naked into the gas chambers hundreds at a time and the heavy doors clanked shut behind them did panic set in at the realization that these would be their last breaths.
The prisoners at Auschwitz were slaughtered like swine, Vrba said. “Better,” he felt, “that the Jews of Europe be hunted down like deer, than slaughtered like pigs.” To force the Nazis to hunt them down would disrupt the machinery of death, and increase their chance of survival. Lack of resistance only aided the Nazis, and facilitated the mass murder of Jews.
At the last possible moment, George Klein, having read the Vrba-Wetzler report, believing it to be true, and knowing what awaited him at the end of the railway line, made the fateful decision to force the Nazis to hunt him down, rather than wait to be slaughtered.
The Holocaust is a mirage. The closer you get, the more it recedes. No sooner do you think that you finally comprehend than incomprehension overwhelms you. How to explain the nature of this barbarism? What are its causes? Why the Jews? Of all the savageries in the sordid history of human affairs, what explains the singling out of the Jews for unique odium? Why “Jews will not replace us”? Why not “Scandinavians will not replace us” or “Unitarians will not replace us”? Why not “Hindus will not replace us”? There are a billion Hindus in the world. Why not “Buddhists will not replace us”? There are nearly 500 million Buddhists in the world. Why Jews? There are less than 15 million of us. We are less than 2% of the American population, but were the target of 58% of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the United States in 2020.
While it is of course true that antisemitism is on the spectrum of all expressions of hate, intolerance, xenophobia, and racism, it still strikes us as different, not only in degree, but also in kind. No other supremacist ideology is as singularly fixated on one group of people. It is not only the hatred of a Jew. Many antisemites have never met a Jew in their lives. It is the obsession with Jewry, the Jewish people.
Historians now point to Hitler’s Reichstag speech in 1939 as the clearest indication of what he planned for European Jewry. To wild applause, Hitler snarled, “If international finance Jewry in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will not be the Bolshevization of the Earth, and a victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
From Mein Kampf in 1925 to his last day on earth, April 30, 1945, Hitler remained insanely obsessed not with individual Jews, but with the Jewish people. In his last will and testament, dictated from his stinking bunker in the putrid bowels of the earth, he wrote these words: “The responsibility for the outbreak of this war cannot rest on me. Centuries may pass, but out of the ruins of our cities and monuments of art there will arise a new hatred for the people who alone are ultimately responsible: International Jewry and its helpers.” The day before firing a bullet into his sick brain, this human monster responsible for the deaths of 80 million people—6 million of them Jews—bid his final farewell to the German nation with these, his last ever recorded words: “Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their followers with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples—international Jewry.”
While individual Jews suffer the consequences, the ideology of antisemitism focuses not on the Jewish person, but on the Jewish people. Antisemites are obsessed with what they call “international Jewry” or the “worldwide Jewish conspiracy.” Nothing you do will change their minds. Their antisemitism is not really about you. It is about them. It is a window on their own fears, hatreds, suspicions, and insecurities.
The London Jews who in May of this year witnessed a caravan of Palestinian flag-wavers driving through their neighborhood shrieking “F--- the Jews. Rape their daughters!” did nothing to bring this about. They were targeted because they are of the Jewish people. The haters did not shout “F--- the Zionists.” They shouted “F--- the Jews.” The Orthodox Jew beaten in Times Square by a pro-Palestinian mob was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any person who looked Jewish would do.
Unfortunately, I can list dozens of such incidences in the past year. They result from, and are a reflection of, an ideology focused obsessively on the Jewish people as the source of evil in the world. But ideology is not the only factor. Rudi Vrba was convinced that most German functionaries in the death camps were not driven by ideology. He knew them. Two years in Auschwitz bestowed upon him an expertise in human nature that even a career in psychotherapy or philosophy will never grant. You can have five Ph.D.s in psychiatry and have written a dozen books on mass murderers. It will never give you access to the depravity lurking in the hearts of men and women as two years in Auschwitz.
Vrba felt that human nature—our emotions, anxieties, insecurities, ego, and self-interest—influence our actions more than ideology. He noted that no German was required to work at Auschwitz. Requests for transfers were almost always granted. Many of the death camp administrators knew how horrible it was. They were there and stayed there, Vrba said, because it was good for them. They had an abundance of cigarettes, bountiful food, and meaningful friendships. They had opportunities at Auschwitz to further their careers.
Even the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele—who conducted brutal and inhuman experiments on living human beings and, with the flick of a wrist, sentenced multitudes to extermination—even he, according to Vrba, exploited Auschwitz to enhance his reputation and advance his career. He may have also been convinced of Nazi racial superiority, but he was a small-time climber, Vrba thought, who didn’t hesitate to murder. He ingratiated himself with prominent German scientists. “Since you are killing all those people anyway,” said one prominent professor to an SS doctor, “you might just as well send me their brains.”
Even the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, the most prolific mass murderer in the history of mankind, used the camp to advance his career. In prison after the war, he wrote with pride about the technology of death that he administered. He considered it a great achievement, an outstanding professional accomplishment. Höss made no attempt to move his family away, even after he was reassigned to Berlin. His wife Hedwig testified that these years were the best and most comfortable years of their lives. The family would spend afternoons and pastoral weekends together on family outings. They had abundant food. The children later described the strawberries they grew in the garden, and they remembered their mother’s insistence that they rinse the fruit thoroughly because they were covered in dust—the dust of human beings. They had free slaves, plucked directly from the endless supply a few hundred meters away. Why move to Berlin? They had a mansion. You can still see that house, right over the fence that separated all that is pleasant and pleasing about life from the nine circles of hell.
It is true that there would have been no Holocaust if leading Nazis did not believe in Aryan racial supremacy, but ideology alone was not enough. Most people are not ideologues. We are followers, driven by our own needs and deep-seated insecurities. Everyone feels vulnerable. Everyone is susceptible to suspicion, manipulation, hate, fear, envy, anxiety, uncertainty, flattery, and conspiracy. If granted permission by authority figures to act upon these impulses—if the Pandora’s box of all manner of human evil cracks open even a little bit—our worst qualities will escape and find their way onto the political jet stream, polluting and contaminating the atmosphere of the globe.
This is why antisemitism is so dangerous. The Jewish people is and has always been the perfect scapegoat around which to organize and rally people to extreme political causes. It is nefarious Jewish power that stands in the way of peace, prosperity, liberation, or justice. Thus, communists could accuse the Jews of being capitalists. Capitalists could accuse the Jews of being communists. Nationalists could accuse the Jews of cosmopolitanism, and cosmopolitans could accuse the Jews of blind and exclusive loyalty to the Jewish people. The hard left can accuse the Jews of being white and complicit in racial inequality, and the extreme right can accuse the Jews of being an insidious enemy of the white race. Imagine how much easier it would have been for Goebbels had he had social media at his disposal.
The more recent explosion of antisemitism awakens in me a dire, depressing, demoralizing dread. If there is one lesson to absorb from the Holocaust, it is when someone proclaims an intention to exterminate the Jews, believe them. Take them seriously. Iran threatens Jewish extermination all the time. Hezbollah threatens Jewish extermination all the time. Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad threaten Jewish extermination all the time.
I am not opposed to legitimate criticism of Jews or the Jewish state—even when I believe such views are wrong, misinformed, biased, or unfair. To the contrary, everyone needs critics to prevent us from doing stupid or immoral things. Not all criticism of Israel is illegitimate or unwarranted, and certainly not antisemitic. Yet it is undeniable that hatred of Israel foments hatred of Jews. Attacks on Israel lead to attacks on Jews.
If I were to have a philosophical conversation, I could accept the proposition that in some cases anti-Zionism does not constitute antisemitism. After all, there are many anti-Zionist Jews. However, the extent and manner of the single-minded, blind obsession with Israel often bleeds into hatred of Jews, and normalizes Jew-hatred to an extent not seen since the darkest days of the 20th century. In many places, it is normative now to view Jews as white oppressors, even though the majority of the world’s Jews are not even white. “Zionist” has become a curse word, another term for racist.
Wild accusations of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, genocide—against the only actual democracy in the Middle East—are blood libels, different only in form, but not in substance, from Jews poisoning the wells, or murdering children to drain their blood to bake matzo. Multitudes back then believed those libels, too. They were already conditioned to suspect Jews, having been fed centuries of lies and conspiracies.
I spend so much time emphasizing the antisemitism of the hard left not because I believe that the antisemitism of the extreme right is any less pervasive or dangerous. But I am a liberal rabbi leading a Reform synagogue composed of mostly liberal Jews. And in my view, many liberal Jews are misled by the high-sounding rhetoric of anti-Zionist students, liberal professors, thought leaders, influencers, and media and social media personalities.
For some, the term “social justice” now means that Israel is somehow to blame for racism in American police departments. Even our own Jewish concept of tikkun olam—repairing the world—has been co-opted and distorted by some Jews to virtue-signal their moral purity. Twenty-two percent of American Jews—1 in 5—believe that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, according to a recent study by the Jewish Electorate Institute.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have an indisputable claim to the land and to basic human dignity. But pro-Palestinian activity is often led by those who do not seek accommodation with Israel, but its annihilation. That is antisemitism.
Israel—for the first time since antiquity—is home to a near majority of the world’s Jews. More than half of all Jewish children in the world now live in Israel. Threats to destroy the Jewish state are threats to destroy the Jewish people.
When they shout, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they mean “destroy Israel.” “Free Palestine” for them does not mean coexistence with Israel. It means Palestinian existence without Israel. Ask them. They don’t hide it. They simply rely on your ignorance and naïveté because they spout words that sound progressive to you: human rights, civil rights, indigenous rights, anti-racism, anti-apartheid, anti-colonialism. For them, it is nefarious Jewish power centrally organized by Israel and supported by world Jewry, standing in the way of peace, prosperity, liberation and justice.
If these agitators were truly about human rights, they would be concerned with the real threats to human rights: the thousands of missiles indiscriminately fired upon Israeli civilians from Hamas, a terrorist, fundamentalist, misogynistic, gay-hating regime implacably committed to Israel’s annihilation. What in the world are progressives doing supporting such people? If they truly cared about human rights, they would speak against the rampant antisemitism and bloodcurdling threats to annihilate the Jews. They would advocate on behalf of the hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims deprived by their own regimes of human rights and human dignity.
How dare you equate Israel with Nazis? Have you seen what the Nazis did? Read the Vrba-Wetzler report. Visit Auschwitz yourself. See the mountains of human hair the Nazis used to stuff pillows and furniture. Look at the piles of shoes, the dolls seized from children, the eyeglasses. See the luggage with the names and addresses of the condemned from every European city of high culture and advanced philosophy—belonging to people, who, as Rudi Vrba described, were convinced that they would need this luggage upon relocation and who couldn’t fathom that the most cultivated society in the history of the world would kill them upon arrival? Those were the Nazis.
We should reflect deeply on our withdrawal from Afghanistan. The lesson of Afghanistan for the Jews—a lesson we should have learned a thousand times—is that if you want to survive, you need to rely on yourself. You cannot subcontract your defense and protection to anyone, least of all to faux human rights activists and their deluded supporters who sit in ivory towers: intellectuals who write and think all day, who preen with academic arrogance, but are incapable of understanding what is really going on in people’s hearts. Preoccupied with their shallow self-righteousness, they ignore even basic human emotions, motivations, and drives; bleeding hearts who have no heart for bleeding Jews. It is all academic for them. We should have the courage, the decency, the honesty to say that our side, the liberal side, is wrong. We, too, are writing and supporting untruths—vicious, malicious, fallacious, audacious lies.
All of us, especially young adults, teenagers, and university students—you need to feel antisemitism in your kishkes. Learn to appreciate subtlety, nuance, and context. Develop the capacity to distinguish between legitimate critique and the new mutated form of antisemitism dressed up in the garments of pathological anti-Zionism. If you oppose Israeli policies, say so. Be active. Try to influence and make a difference. But whatever you do, you cannot give comfort, cooperation and credibility to those who hate your people. Often what they oppose is not the excesses of the Israeli military, but that a Jewish army exists at all. Jewish tank commanders, Jewish fighter pilots are disorienting to a world that had grown accustomed over the centuries to passive, disempowered Jewish victims—the kind that Rudi Vrba described.
President Roosevelt read the Vrba-Wetzler report sometime in the summer or fall of 1944. Although nothing like the eyewitness account and detailed sketches of the machinery of extermination were previously documented, the broad intentions of the Nazis to annihilate European Jewry were known as early as 1942. The Americans knew. The British knew. The Swiss knew. The Vatican knew. Even The New York Times knew. The victims, themselves, did not know, until the doors were slammed shut and Zyklon pellets were released into what they thought were shower rooms. The Allies never bombed the tracks or the gas chambers, as Vrba urged. Roosevelt insisted that the best way to save the Jews of Europe was for the Allies to win the war as quickly as possible.
For his entire life, Vrba regretted that his report failed to save the Jews of Hungary. George Klein reminded Vrba that he saved at least one Hungarian Jew. To save even one life is to save the entire world, according to our sages. Furthermore, said Klein, you played a role in saving at least 100,000, perhaps 200,000, Hungarian Jews.
In the aftermath of the report, international pressure was placed upon the Hungarian regent, Miklos Horthy, and he intervened to stop the deportations in July—only one week before the scheduled final transport of the Jews of Budapest. Klein suggested to his new friend that even if Hungarian Jews had read the report in full, most of them would have still gotten on those trains. “Denial is natural,” said Klein, who had himself shared the report with 12 other people. None believed him.
George Klein and Rudi Vrba went on to live full and productive lives. They made significant contributions to the well-being of the world. It is the best response to those who hate Jews. Keep moving forward. Find meaning and purpose. Help others. Show compassion. Fight for justice. Defend your people. Resist evil. Warn the world.
This article is adapted from the author’s Sept. 7, 2021, Rosh Hashanah sermon, which can be viewed in full here.
Ammiel Hirsch is senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.