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Holocaust Survivor on Rising Antisemitism: ‘I Never Thought I Would See What I’m Seeing Today’

Sami Steigmann on the lack of Holocaust knowledge in schools, the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and why, despite everything, he remains an optimist.
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February 23, 2024
Sami Steigmann, who has spoken to students at countless schools and at numerous events, has been featured in several books. Photo by Perry Bindelglass.

A few years ago, the Claims Conference released results of a study it commissioned that revealed that among Gen Z and millennials in America, 63% did not know how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. How is this possible, especially when Holocaust education is mandated in more than 20 states?

Holocaust survivor Sami Steigmann, 84, said that’s not actually the case. A teacher at a school where for seven years he annually addressed assemblies of more than 700 students told him that Holocaust education is not actually required for all students.

“A lot of politicians like to use big words with no teeth,” Steigmann told the Journal. “I speak at many schools. At one, in Bayonne, New Jersey, a teacher there created a genocide and Holocaust curriculum that was approved by the state. I asked him how many students took the class and he told me it was 50. It was an elective. So ‘mandated’ does not mean the whole school is learning about it. They are unfortunately learning many false things from social media.”

Steigmann believes he has reached about 250,000 people and once answered questions about the Holocaust for 16 hours straight on the social media app Clubhouse.

“At times I am very tired, but if there is an opportunity to speak to people, I become energized and am able to do it,” he said. “This is my mission. This is what I live for, and it keeps me going.”

The New York City resident said recent events have been surprising, including Ivy League Presidents refusing to say calling for the genocide of Jews would be against school policy, the horrific brutality of the Oct. 7, and the death of Paul Kessler, a Jewish man in Los Angles who was holding an Israeli flag when he was assaulted during an altercation between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protestors.

“I never thought I would see what I’m seeing today,” Steigmann said. “It’s a crazy world.”

While the world was shaken by the terrorist attack against Israel on Oct. 7, Steigmann said he was only half-surprised. “I was not shocked that Hamas wanted to murder,” he said. “I was surprised by the capacity of their attack, the complete brutality of all that they did, and that they also recorded it.” He noted that Hamas would fire thousands of rockets at Israel, which would in turn, attack and destroy some tunnels. “I said for a long time we should not expect different results with the same tactics,” he said. “I knew one day there would be a war. Israel did not want to go in but the attack of Oct. 7 forced Israel to do so. The Iron Dome has intercepted the majority of the rockets, but no other country would accept such attacks.”

“I knew one day there would be a war. Israel did not want to go in but the attack of Oct. 7 forced Israel to do so. The Iron Dome has intercepted the majority of the rockets, but no other country would accept such attacks.” – Sami Steigmann

At a recent anti-Israel protest in Manhattan, Steigmann confronted members of the fringe group Neturei Karta, Hasidic Jews who say there should be no Jewish rule of Israel until the messiah comes. The group has been criticized for meeting and protesting with those who call for Israel’s destruction.

“There was one guy who [had a] sign of a star of David with a swastika in it,” Steigmann said. “I told him I was a Holocaust survivor. He didn’t care. I asked if there was no Israeli government, would it be safe for Jews to live there? He said ‘yes.’ I said, ‘why didn’t you open a yeshiva in Gaza?’” Steigmann said the person told him to go away.

Steigmann believes newscasters or celebrities who speak out of ignorance do a lot of damage. He cited  “The View” host Whoopi Goldberg, who infamously claimed the Holocaust was not about race. He also said it was wrong for New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez to call migrant detention facilities “concentration camps.”

When he saw college presidents publicly refuse to say calling for the genocide of Jews was against the code of conduct, it was evidence that this is not a new problem, but rather, one that has arisen due to many years of indoctrination. “Many will graduate as ‘educated idiots,’” he said  “because they have only been told one side — that Israel is wrong.”

Born December 21, 1939, in Czernowitz, Bukovina, which was part of Romania, he was sent to Mogilev-Podolsky, a labor camp in what is now Ukraine. His father at one point gave away his winter coat for a loaf of bread so the family would not starve. His parents told him that Nazis did medical experiments on him, the pain he still experiences a reminder of their cruelty.

For many years he would not speak about the Holocaust. But in 2003, he visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum attending an event for survivors and their families and he met someone who was held at the same labor camp. When he spoke to an elementary school, a student wrote him a letter about how his story was touching and she would relay it to her children.

Steigmann also said comparison to Nazis, or calling people like former President Donald Trump, “Hitler” are completely inappropriate. “There was only one Hitler,” Steigmann said. “It is not right to make comparisons for political gain or any reason. Also, there was only one group called the Nazis in history. People today who share their beliefs are called neo-Nazis. In terms of comparisons, Hamas should be compared to ISIS.”

Mainstream media, social media and podcasts are full of lies that claim including that Israel is committing a genocide and that it is purposely targeting civilians, he said. Many who falsely claim Israel is an apartheid state have no idea that that more than 1.5 million Arab residents live in Israel proper. “Israel will never win the PR war. But it is still important to educate as much as possible.”

As a general rule, Steigmann will speak to any group because he believes it is important for everyone to be educated about the Holocaust; he recently spoke to a group of Scientologists. “The only person I will not sit down and have a discussion with is a Holocaust denier, because such a person has a closed mind,” he said.

Asked what he would do if he was given a huge budget to make a movie, he said he would make a documentary about how it was possible for the Holocaust to occur. He recently saw the “The Zone of Interest” a drama about Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film doesn’t show Jews but has several shouts and moments where gunfire can be heard. “I don’t see why it deserves an Oscar nomination,” Steigmann said. “It was boring. As a Holocaust survivor, I don’t think it has any educational value.”

Steigmann has one creative idea he thinks could help in terms of Holocaust education. There should be a book about the Holocaust read by families who gather together on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. He compares it to the Haggadah read at Passover seders.

Despite the tragedy, death and suffering in the world, Steigmann said people must not lose hope.

“I have been an optimist, and I will die an optimist,” Steigmann said. “There is a lot of evil in the world but there is also a lot of good. There are people who lie but there are also people who speak the truth. Every day when I wake up, I try to see if there is a way I can reach people. I am planting the seeds. I know I will not see the growth of the trees in my lifetime. But all that I do is in the hope that people will learn from history and that people will grow up and learn to treat people the right way instead of being taught to hate. All of the important changes in the world were made by young people. For all the darkness we see now, I think there is still a brighter future ahead.”

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