APR 14, 2017
LA Jews say Sean Spicer’s Holocaust reference ‘insulted the memory’ of victims
PAN PACIFIC PARK >> Holocaust survivor Albert Rosa was surprised to learn that the chief White House spokesman said recently that even Adolf Hitler “didn’t sink to using chemical weapons” or use gas on his own people the same way the current Syrian president did.
The Greek-born Rosa, who was the only survivor of his 70-member family, had just shared his own story of survival with students at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust when he was told the news, which was still resonating three days after Spicer made it.
“I’m sure he’s wrong,” Rosa, 92, said of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments. “I was there (in Auschwitz). I saw people taken directly from the (cattle cars) — my family too — straight to the crematory. The newcomers didn’t know they were going to the gas chamber; they thought they were going to take a shower.”
For many area Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Spicer’s comments at Tuesday’s press briefing on Syria “insulted the memory” of the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Spicer clumsily clarified his statements during the briefing and later apologized for making the comparison.
“My family tragedy is my family’s tragedy; it’s not something to be used for other purposes, for someone’s political expediency or cleverness,” said Paul Nussbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors and the president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “It hurts me deeply as I say it.”
It’s particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors when politicians use the systematic murder of their family members for their own benefit, Nussbaum said.
The Holocaust is “not an amorphous concept,” Nussbaum added. “It’s the reason I don’t have grandparents on my mother’s side.”
Spicer, in a statement after the media briefing, said he was “in no way” trying to lessen the “horrendous nature of the Holocaust.” Rather, he said, he was trying to differentiate the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on residents, which Syrian President Bashar Assad is accused of doing against his own people.
But when Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum heard about Spicer’s comments, he said he couldn’t help but wonder if he had failed as an educator. The director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles said he thought they had made it clear to generations of students and to tens of millions of visitors to Holocaust museums about the importance of accuracy and sensitivity when dealing with the subject.
“I thought they would have learned the fact and would have been cautious about speaking about gassing and saying the (phrase) ‘worse than Hitler,’” Berenbaum said. “That should be off bounds to anybody who can’t speak with great precision.”
The first people the Nazis gassed during the war were Germans with disabilities, who were deemed to be “unworthy of living.” They were taken to several killing centers, in a so-called euthanasia program, he said. They later gassed millions of Jews as well as the Sinti and Roma peoples (gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war.
Spicer’s “misrepresentation” and “oversight” is part of an “interesting and troubling dilemma,” said Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. As one moves away 70-plus years from the events of the Holocaust and the period of Nazi control, you often see both misrepresentation of fact and in some cases, an intentional effort to misrepresent facts.
Windmueller stressed that he does not believe that Spicer intentionally misrepresented the facts. But he said the spokesman’s comments failed to put into perspective what Hitler represented — his efforts to commit genocide against the Jews — and thus marginalized the Holocaust and minimized the Nazi leader’s impact.
The Holocaust “was a planned integral part of the German government’s attempt to fundamentally change the face of Europe and to change the role of Jews in the world by simply liquidating the Jewish populations of Europe,” he said. “In that sense, it’s a unique and distinct event.”
Claremont resident Carol Oberg, a docent at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said Spicer’s comments during the Jewish holiday of Passover affected her as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a Jew and as an educator.
“Don’t tell me this person behaved like a Nazi unless you’ve seen him throw babies in the air and shoot them, or bayonet them, or literally, and this is what some survivors say, tear these children apart,” Oberg said.
At the museum on Thursday, Yvette Brown of Laguna Hills brought her 9-year-old daughter, Savannah, with the hope that the younger generation will know about the atrocities of World War II. Brown, who works in marketing, said the first rule of public relations is not to compare anything to Hitler or the Holocaust.
“It’s just ridiculous and to a certain extent, that’s a perfect reason why this generation needs to know and understand how significant the Holocaust is and make sure it never happens again,” Brown said.
Also at the museum that day was Eric Kim, an eighth-grader who visited with his class from Nicolas Junior High School in Fullerton. After a tour of the museum, which is free to the public and is open every day of the week, Kim said he learned a lot about the Holocaust that he didn’t know before.
While Kim had read the Holocaust memoir “The Boy on the Wooden Box” about a boy saved by Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, “here I learned about how that story started before, how the Nazis started out ... what they did to the Jews and the aftermath of the Holocaust.”
To read the article in the L.A. Daily News, click here.