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There were many shocking things about the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol. The biggest, of course, is that such an attempted insurrection happened at all.
The imagery from that horrific day — the Confederate Flag being marched through the building for the first time in history, a man dressed all in black carrying plastic handcuffs hopping over railings in the U.S. Senate— will stay with us for decades.
There was also a man in a sweatshirt with words that are so troubling we are reluctant to reprint them. “Camp Auschwitz,” was emblazoned across the front over a skull and the phrase “Work Brings Freedom.” That’s a rough translation of the German words above the gate to the largest and most notorious Nazi concentration camp where more than 1 million prisoners, most of them Jewish, were killed.
On the back, the shirt said “Staff.”
The man wearing the shirt has since been arrested and charged for his involvement in the events at the U.S. Capitol. Etsy and other online retailers who sold the shirts have removed them from their sites. Of course, it is troubling that they were there in the first place.
Antisemitism, sadly, is not new. But, it appears to be on the rise. In America, Jews account for about 2 percent of the population. Yet, nearly 60 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes were targeted at Jews, according to the latest figures from the FBI. In 2019, Jews were the second most frequent targets of hate crimes. Incidents against Black people remain the most prevalent.
Overall, religious hate crimes are decreasing but anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
David Greenham, the interim executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta, says he is not sure that anti-Semitism is on the rise, but it is showing more, he told the Bangor Daily News.
That was clear on Jan. 6, when a mob that included white supremacists, people in the thrall of QAnon conspiracy theories, Trump supporters, stormed the U.S. Capitol. “That these folks felt it was just fine to take over the Capitol — and to film themselves doing it — and to wear a shirt like that, is a reminder that this hard work is not done,” Greenham said, referring to the offensive sweatshirt.
But, he sees a positive side to these actions and hatreds being brought into the open, as they should prompt us to have conversations about them and how and why they happened.
“We can’t be indifferent,” he said.
There is urgency to this work.
Wednesday marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers. The day is now remembered as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Seventy-six years after the end of the war, memories of the Holocaust are fading. A recent study found that nearly two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 18 and 40 did not know the scope of the Holocaust and only half could name a single concentration camp or ghetto. More than a third thought fewer than 2 million Jews were killed (the actual number is 6 million, about two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe at the time) and more than half did not know of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1 million men, women and children were murdered.
Nearly half of those surveyed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany had seen Holocaust denial or distortion of social media, and 30 percent had seen Nazi symbols showing the prevelance of efforts to erase or downplay the Holocaust and to glorify Nazis.
Despite their general lack of knowledge, 59 percent of survey respondents said they believed something like the Holocaust — which began with propaganda and systemized discrimination against homosexuals, people with mental and physical disabilities, gypsies and others, including Jews, who were deemed a threat to the “German race” — could happen again.
As the horrors of the Holocaust fade, there are troubling signs that its lessons — about intolerance, disinformation and systemic discrimination — are being forgotten, at the U.S. Capitol, and in Maine.
Last year, a swastika was painted over a sign in Waldo supporting Black Lives Matter. In Bangor this past June, a swastika was painted on the street outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Maine’s oldest. The synagogue and Beth Abraham were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti in 2012 as well.
Our collective revulsion at the Holocaust — and those who mock or minimize it — remains vitally important as the U.S. struggles to address racial, economic and other disparities and as Americans too often divide along lines of race, religion, gender identity and political affiliation.