When Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton appeared virtually to Ohioans for the second time May 18, instead of providing COVID-19 case updates or reminding people to wash their hands, she tearfully remembered her grandfather who survived the Holocaust.
“I’ve realized lately how much power there is in our stories,” Acton said to about 600 virtual attendees of the 40th annual Governor's Holocaust Commemoration, presented by Ohio Jewish Communities and Gov. Mike DeWine. “He was from the Austria-Hungary border, and he knew 11 languages when he came to this country at the age of 21. He would weep at the age of 84, still talking about his mother who he said goodbye to when he boarded the boat to come to America. He was one of 10 children, and he lost many of his siblings in the Holocaust.”
She then discussed the impact of remembering the Holocaust and methods people could from learn from in the future, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many families, when we think of today, (have) stories of suffering, but they’re also stories of hope, perseverance, resiliency and forgiveness that continue to live on in this time of historical significance,” Acton said. “It’s impossible of course to compare (Holocaust) horrors to anything else, but I think there are lessons that can serve us well right now as we learn to overcome challenges, as we strive to accept one another and embrace our differences and to truly listen.”
Acton, who’s no stranger to challenges — such as protesters flocking her Bexley property and neighborhood since the start of May, an Ohio senator and his wife comparing a statement of hers to being in Nazi Germany and an Ohio state representative calling her a “globalist” — said she believes she and others can’t stand down the fight for what’s right especially during these times of need.
“No matter how hopeless and tired I’ve become at moments, a day like today reminds me that I have no choice of what to do – that we all must continue to work for what is just and ensure that nobody is left behind,” Acton said. “We need to see that even some adversary can point us to a new point of view, and that has happened to me during this. I don’t agree with everyone on everything, but I’ve seen some things that I didn’t understand before.”
DeWine shared a story about his father, Dick DeWine, a U.S. Army private during World War II, who met and photographed a Dachau concentration camp survivor a few days after the camp’s liberation.
“Dad’s story of Dachau warns us about the power of hate and the importance of standing up to it,” DeWine said. “Tragically, even today, people of the Jewish faith still face discrimination and hostility. Just last month, we witnessed such intimidation and harassment from one of the protesters carrying an anti-Semitic sign parading in front of the Statehouse. Today, as we mourn the millions of lives tragically lost, we must once again vow to ensure the future generations know the horrors of the Holocaust so they know the story so those crimes are never repeated.”
The event’s main feature was a conversation between DeWine and Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Lipstadt introduced three lessons from the Holocaust applicable to contemporary society.
The first was that the Holocaust was a culmination of years of anti-Semitism.
“When the national socialists came to power in January 1933, they didn’t come to power with the idea of murdering European Jewry,” Lipstadt said. “They just came to power with deep seated anti-Semitism. It was step by step ... little by little stripping the rights of Jews. By the time they decided on a genocide, it was too late to stop it.”
The second was many people were against the idea of genocide but supported the personal benefits that came from the Jews’ deaths.
“They went along with it because financially it helped them,” Lipstadt said. “That’s also a message to us that by the time it came to object to genocide, they didn’t have the freedom to object anymore.”
The final point was that another large group of people neither supported or denounced the Holocaust, and did nothing as 6 million Jews died.
“Often we talk about victims, perpetrators and bystanders, but I think in the face of evil, there are no bystanders,” Lipstadt said. “If you walked down the street and you see someone being beaten up and you said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m going to get involved,’ when it’s clear this person is being hit upon for no good reason, they’re innocent, people just decided to attack them for whatever reason, then you’re not neutral. You’ve sided with the oppressor.”
The commemoration also included Maj. Gen. Deborah Ashenhurst, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services; Senate President Larry Obhof; House Assistant Majority Whip Laura Lanese; J. David Heller, past member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and board chair of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland; and Rabbi Josh Brown of Temple Israel in Bath Township.
Acton reminded attendees that everyone in the world is dealing with COVID-19’s unknown and she urged unity.
“This is that concept in Judaism, Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu (Adonai Ehad), the unity, the oneness, the wholeness,” she said. “We have to see ourselves as co-creators of our stories right now, and we have a choice to make. We have to lean on each other. This is just the beginning of a long path ahead that could tear us apart, but it is also a call to action to repair the world.
“It is our history to face fear, know the art of what’s possible and remember and write this story together. I really hope in this moment of history ... that we create a history that we want our future generations to tell.”