January 19, 2020

Holocaust survivors weigh in on Trump-Hitler comparison

One Sunday morning in March, Henry Oster was watching the news in bed when a video came on of then-candidate Donald Trump asking a crowd in Florida to raise their right hands and pledge to vote for him.

“I almost fell out of bed. It was that kind of a shock,” Oster said.

For Oster, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Germany, the episode was reminiscent of ugly scenes from his youth. Oster, 88, of Woodland Hills, is rare among those comparing now President-elect Trump to Adolf Hitler in that he was around to watch firsthand as both rose to power.

Yet what some survivors find to be an apt metaphor, others find unsettling or even insulting. Witnesses of the Jewish genocide, like the rest of the voting public, are split on the idea of Trump as a latter-day Hitler. 

“Come on, give me a break,” David Wiener, 90, said when asked about the comparison. 

Wiener saw the inside of Birkenau and was dispatched on a death march before being liberated by American troops on April 13, 1945. He later started several successful businesses in Southern California and now lives in Beverly Hills. 

“This topic is an insult to people,” he said. “No comparison. We have a Congress here. We have a Senate. We have a Supreme Court.”

Besides the constitutional protections of a democracy that is more than 200 years old, the United States has the additional protection of being a multi-ethnic state. Unlike Germany, where a majority of people were ethnic Germans, he said: “We’re not one race.” 

That makes it unlikely the United States will go the way of the Weimar Republic. 

“It will never happen here, God forbid,” Wiener said.

He added, “It doesn’t enter my mind. I know people think that way. No, no, no.”

Even some survivors who don’t particularly like the president-elect found the comparison off-putting.

Bob Geminder, 80, of Palos Verdes, takes issue with Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying he generalizes about Muslim refugees in a way that is “very, very upsetting.” But comparisons between Trump and Hitler are “ridiculous, totally ridiculous,” he said.

Geminder is in a position to know the depths of Nazi depravity: He was 6 years old in 1941, when he saw 12,000 Jews shot to death in the Jewish cemetery of Stanislawow, then part of Poland. The killing stopped only when the failing light and falling snow made it difficult to proceed.

“I don’t like anybody being compared to Adolf Hitler,” he told the Journal. “There is no one, no one in the world who has ever been — and hopefully never will be — that one can compare to Adolf Hitler.

Like Geminder, Adela Manheimer, 95, is no great admirer of the next president: “I’m not for Trump.” 

Manheimer, born in the town of Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, was 18 when German troops took the town in September 1939 and narrowly escaped numerous selections for Auschwitz throughout the war. She now lives in the Beverly Grove neighborhood and boasts of six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

She takes a positive attitude when talking about the country her descendants will grow up in. 

“I expect a good change and I don’t believe that Trump is a Hitler,” she said. “I don’t believe that he’s an anti-Semite. I hope for the best of the best, that we will have a good life in the coming years.”

Eva Nathanson, 75, is not so optimistic.

“Ever since the results of the election, I’ve been depressed as hell,” she said.

Nathanson, who was born in 1941 in Budapest and now lives in the Fairfax District, was an enthusiastic supporter of Democrat Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Watching results come in on election night, she said, “I kept on thinking it was a nightmare — I was going to wake up from it.”

Now, she’s not sure where she fits in with Trump’s America. “This is the first time I’ve been in this country — and it is 59 years, almost — that I have ever been afraid as a Jew and as a human being of what’s going to happen,” she said.

She admits to avidly comparing Trump to Hitler. Though she is too young to have seen the Third Reich come to power, she’s nonetheless alarmed by what she sees as a rising tide of anti-Semitism inspired by Trump’s rhetoric.

“It’s just really bad news. Not only for Jews, but for everybody, I think,” she said.  “I’m not even worried for myself, as much, because I’m 75. I’m worried about my children and grandchildren.”

Oster also worries about Trump’s campaign rhetoric. For him, “Make America Great Again” sounds a bit too much like “Germany must rise again,” a Hitler-era slogan.

He sees other subtle Nazi throwbacks in Trump’s campaign: His scapegoating of minorities and tendency to speak on stages lined with dozens of flags, for instance. 

“Now, he doesn’t yell and scream like Hitler did,” Oster said. “But the insults, the demeaning other candidates, holding himself obviously as being superior … has a great similarity.”

So convinced is he of that similarity that when TIME magazine put then-candidate Trump on its cover, Oster sent it back to the editors with a Hitler mustache drawn on Trump’s face. 

Oster has some faith that Trump’s campaign promises are just that — promises, as easily made as broken. “I cannot see America permitting itself to become a ghetto by building walls or fences around it,” he said.

Nonetheless, he’s alarmed by a wave of hate crimes that are “sort of sweeping the country.”

On a recent trip to speak about his Holocaust story in the small Bay Area city of Lafayette, he saw an apparently Jewish-owned dry cleaner with something like “Make America Great, Don’t Buy Here” scrawled on it.

“It’s devastating for you to see that, especially [someone] who has seen it 70-some-odd years ago,” he said. “These things, unfortunately, have to be handled. Now the test of how great we really are depends on how we respond to it.”