“And we remember those first hopeful moments of liberation, when at long last the American soldiers arrived in camps and cities throughout occupied Europe, waving the same beautiful flags before us today, speaking those three glorious words: ‘You are free.’”
About two thirds of the way through a fairly well written speech delivered by our President at the United States Capitol in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 25th, the words printed above were read. As a documentary filmmaker who has spent years studying the impact and aftermath of liberation on Holocaust survivors, I shuddered. How naïve. How simplistic. How American. To assume that liberation could be equated with freedom is one of the biggest myths and our President featured it prominently in the first speech where he actually seemed to be willing to confront Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. In today’s world, facts matter and when the truth is at stake those of us who can, must set the record straight.
Liberation was not a happy day. To many survivors, it was the second worst day of the war (the first being the day they were separated from their families). Hungarian survivor Renee Firestone says, “That moment was one of the saddest, most difficult moments of my life. I knew that my mother did not make it. My sister never came back. I had no idea what happened to my father or my brother, so what am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” Yes, there was, for some, an initial jolt of joy at the concept of being “free” but the reality soon overwhelmed that emotion. Securing the basic needs of life: food, shelter, family, became the sole driving force for most survivors.
We must also realize that liberation was a concept that most Jews never saw as a possibility. For years, the Nazis “promised” to kill them if the Allies ever got too close. Once it came, it brought more questions than answers. Just returning home sometimes took months as trains tracks were long since destroyed and the trains running infrequently. Returning home brought new misery as the houses these women left behind were often occupied by neighbors, many of whom were wearing clothes left behind by Jews. Erika Jacoby remembered returning to Miscolc in Hungary. Neighbors accused “more of coming back than left … you want your stuff back, you’re never going to get it”. Thousands were murdered in the aftermath of liberation. They might have been free, but there was no home to return to. Which brings us to today.
The biggest issue that emerged from the President’s speech was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. This single, carefully reasoned statement cannot erase the stain of his campaign and the first 100 days of this presidency. This is a President who called to congratulate Recip Erdogan after a dubious election designed to consolidate nationalistic powers. His chief strategic analyst supports Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. How can a President who wants to build a wall and place restrictions on human beings fleeing war and genocide from seeking new lives in America be taken seriously when he talks of bearing witness and never forgetting? It took many survivors 3-5 years to receive a quota number to immigrate to America, but they waited and they came. Lili Majzner from Poland waited six years but arrived in 1951 knowing that “America was a dream for us.” Would these survivors of genocide be welcome in Trump’s 2017 America? Where would we as a society place our priorities? We can guess at these answers.
So the words from our President today were just that, words. Carefully crafted to absolve the administration of its debacle on International Holocaust Day in January when the word “Jew” was not mentioned once to refer to the six million murdered. Words are easy to write and speak from a teleprompter, but devoid of sincere action, they are meaningless and right now they are just that, meaningless. The Holocaust cannot be remembered without a full understanding that it was really about the “Final Solution”: the eradication of European Jewry. These speeches ring hollow, especially when they are simplified to imply that freedom arrived with Allied troops in April and May of 1945. The survivors never found peace, although many found fulfilling lives. They never found a place to call home, although they blended into communities. They never were able to put the past behind, although they tried to move past trauma and tragedy to feel normal again.
That is the reality. I encourage people who wish to explore this concept further to come to the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on May 9 at 7 p.m. when the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College presents the film After Auschwitz: The Stories of Six Women. We must pursue facts and truth so when we are spoon fed clever speeches hand crafted by talented writers, we know enough to stop and ask questions and correct the myths and lies.
The speech ended with “Each survivor here today is a beacon of light, and it only takes one light to illuminate even the darkest space. Just like it takes only one truth to crush a thousand lies and one hero to change the course of history. We know that in the end, good will triumph over evil, and that as long as we refuse to close our eyes or to silence our voices, we know that justice will ultimately prevail.” That was the most honest sentiment of the entire effort. Seek the truth.
If it is absent, speak the truth.
Jon Kean is a documentary filmmaker living in Santa Monica. His latest film After Auschwitz: The Stories of Six Women is a sequel to his critically acclaimed film Swimming in Auschwitz, and is playing at various festivals, Museums and private screenings until its release this fall. He is also a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education.