The urgent telegram arrived at my grandparents’ Manhattan home just before Pearl Harbor Day (December 7, 1941) from Brummel relatives in Czechoslovakia. It stated: “GRAVE DANGER SEND MONEY”. As explained to me when I was very young by my grandmother, whether or not the telegram was actually sent by our Czech cousins, it was not meant to benefit them. It was probably sent by the Aryan administrator, masquerading as them.
The Nazis, having seized control of Brummel family records and assets in Czechoslovakia in 1941, suspected the family had hidden assets in America and were trying to get access to them. There were no assets in America. With the US entry into World War II, all communications with Nazi-occupied Europe were blocked and no reply was possible anyway. Most of the Czech Brummel branch of the family perished. When I finally made my journey to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s to try to find survivors, I saw old Jewish cemeteries - where Brummels had been buried before 1939 - in disarray. Nazi supporters had smashed or over-turned tombstones. The tall undergrowth hid the cemeteries from street view. The Nazis had sought to eradicate not only living Jews, but all memory of Jews.
Since at least 1945, the American Jewish community has taken responsibility for looking after its less fortunate brethren around the world. Various American Jewish organizations led active roles in fighting threats to other Jewish communities. In many ways, America was the Jewish older brother looking out for its weaker brothers elsewhere – including those in Europe. The running assumption was that threats to Jews and Jewish community life – grave things - arose elsewhere, not in the USA.
Hence, there was an outpouring of concern and sympathy from the USA - both Jewish and non-Jewish - when terrorists attacked the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014. America showed even greater compassion when terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and the kosher grocery store in Paris in January 2015. Subsequent attacks on Paris (November 2015) and Brussels (March 2016) - which targeted all segments of society - reinforced the idea that terror networks were now embedded in European countries and could more easily take lethal action against Jewish communities.
It is therefore very disconcerting to read the news coming out of America during the 2016 presidential election campaign and particularly since the beginning of 2017. Free floating anti-Semitism - banished after 1945 from the American public square - has again found safe harbor in America. It has found expression and significant following on certain far-right Internet websites. Shame has disappeared, replaced by boasting taunts. The latest form has been a series of simultaneous bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) across the USA. More than half of the USA’s 110 JCCs have received threats, some several times. The aim is obvious – to disrupt, intimidate and unsettle the American Jewish community.
Jewish cemeteries have been targeted as well. Over a 10-day period in February, there were two attacks on cemeteries in St Louis and Philadelphia. Hundreds of gravestones were toppled. The desecrations follow the same awful logic I saw in Czechoslovakia. Disturb the sacred space of the dead. Make sure all know that all Jews, even the Jewish dead, cannot rest in peace. This is a sharp blow to the psyche of the American Jewish community. Yes, there have been similar attacks in the past - but isolated ones, not a cluster of them. The uneasiness and foreboding can only deepen if more attacks follow. An unnerved American Jewish community has consequences for Jews in Europe. Anti-Semitic elements – forced underground for decades – may feel emboldened by the American example.
The IJC celebrates Purim this coming weekend – a holiday commemorating the successful thwarting of an attempt to exterminate the Jews of Persia 2,500 years ago. Bring the children along to join the Purim festivities. We will boo the evil Haman. We will cheer Mordechai and Good Queen Esther. Yet the recent cemetery desecrations should remind us that old, malevolent spirits can be disinterred and rise again.
President of the IJC