I went to see Max Steinmetz last Sunday. If you have ever spent any meaningful time at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, or if you’ve been a student in an area high school history class, you may know his story.
Born and raised in a small village in Romania. Taken with his family in a roundup of the village’s Jews in 1942. Taken to Auschwitz in 1943 where his father, mother, and younger sister were gassed. Hauled to a forced labor camp in Bavaria known as Kaufering III with his brother Henry, who died there.
Steinmetz tells that story and more, including details on the life he has lived since coming to Birmingham in 1955, in Determined to Survive, a book written by Shades Valley High School history teacher Amy McDonald. He and McDonald spoke and signed the book on Sunday at a Birmingham Holocaust Education Center program before a packed auditorium at Temple Emanu-El, and I think it’s fair to say there was worry in the air. That’s because anti-semitism, joined recently in a Kansas bar by an anti-immigrant prejudice that led to the shooting murder of an Indian engineer, has once again slithered out of its cesspool.
Steinmetz, now 92 and wearing oxygen tubes in his nostrils, but still passionate and vigorous, expressed some worry himself toward the end of his six-minute talk. “We must understand that the genocide of millions of people can occur again,” he said while seated in a chair as BHEC Education Coordinator Ann Mollengarden held the microphone before him. “Look what’s happening in Asia. Look what’s happening in Africa. As a matter of fact, look what happened here [in the U.S.] last week. About 20 Jewish community centers were called up and threatened with bombings. Anyplace, it can happen — and I’m not suggesting it’s going to happen here — but I’m telling you, it can happen.”
If Steinmetz had been speaking Monday, he would have had more to talk about. On Monday, Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center received its third bomb threat since the start of 2017. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 20 bomb threats hit Jewish community centers and schools in 12 states Monday, and the ADL says about 90 such threats have occurred so far this year. Jewish cemeteries also have been vandalized in St. Louis and Philadelphia.
When the Sunday program allowed for questions, I was thinking about some of those pre-Monday incidents as I asked Mr. Steinmetz to elaborate on his worries. And yes, I was wondering if he would put any blame on the tone set, both as a campaigner and as president, by Donald Trump. More than a few people have done that, and at least one speaker did so at U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer’s Saturday morning town hall meeting at Hoover City Hall. I was outside the city hall during the meeting, taking photos and chatting with people and taking note of the signs that people were carrying. One that caught my eye stated, “Protect us from our president.”
In fairness, you have to note that President Trump has condemned the outbreaks of anti-semitism, and Vice President Mike Pence went to the vandalized St. Louis cemetery and helped with the cleanup effort. Also, like their counterparts in other affected states and communities, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Birmingham Mayor William Bell have issued statements of condemnation. And so far, thankfully, we’ve seen nothing here even remotely like the civil rights-related terrorism from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s that earned the Magic City the name of “Bombingham.”
Steinmetz did not mention anyone by name in his expanded answer to my question — “I don’t want to get into politics,” he said twice — but he said the recent incidents reminded him of what was happening when he was a teenager in small-town Romania.
“This is how it started at home,” he said. “They threw rocks at our synagogues, they broke the windows in the Jewish day schools. This is how it started. Yes, many of us said, ‘No, it won’t happen here.’ Well, it did happen.”
After getting my copy of Determined to Survive signed, I walked across the emptying hall to sit down with the Holocaust Education Center’s founding president, Phyllis Weinstein. Now 96, Weinstein has only recently started using a cane, but outwardly, that instrument seems to be about the only concession she has made to age. She speaks with what I would call a quiet intensity, and she makes it her business to stay informed. I guess that’s why, when I asked her the open-ended question “Are you worried?”, she spoke about President Trump’s recurring attacks on the news media.
“I have been concerned about that for months and months,” she said. While Trump has criticized various outlets for reporting “fake news,” she said only positive coverage of his administration would not be “true news either.”
“To me, it’s a very, very difficult situation,” Weinstein said. “It so muddled that you don’t know who to believe or what to believe. But the basic line is that when the media’s attacked, that is a very dangerous thing.”
Weinstein went on to mention her awareness, “well over a year ago,” of how white supremacists were saying they had a presidential candidate, “a voice” that was empowering them. “To me, that was a danger signal right away,” she said. “There must be somebody allowing them to do that, encouraging them to do that. So I think we’re getting our answer now.”
My final question — What can we do to help lower the civic temperature here and around the country and create an atmosphere more conducive to tolerance and peace and respectful dialogue? — left room for a variety of answers. If it had been a tunnel, it would have been vast enough to accommodate an entire fleet of 10-ton semis.
But because Weinstein has lived a lot, thought a lot, and worked a lot on many issues that she has deemed important, I felt compelled to ask it, but not before I got her to laugh at the Mark Twain quote on my ball cap: “Patriotism is supporting your country ALL the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
While acknowledging that an individual may feel he or she can only do so much alone, Weinstein said she was encouraged by the “groundswell” of individuals who have been getting together, here and elsewhere, to demonstrate in noticeable numbers, show their concerns, and participate in town halls like the one with Gary Palmer.
“I’m sorry that I’m not younger [so] I could participate in it,” she said.
If push came to shove, however, I have a feeling that Phyllis Weinstein would find a way to participate. And I have the same feeling about her 92-year-old friend, Max Steinmetz.
Such are the times in which we live.
To watch a brief excerpt from Steinmetz’ talk, visit youtu.be/ivvCZttn5FE.