Alfred Münzer, a Holocaust survivor, is nervous: Donald Trump’s increasingly vile campaign for president is becoming increasingly viable.
“I am very worried about what he says. I am much more worried by how it’s received,” Münzer told me in a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., home, as voters in nearby Virginia went to the polls and handed Trump another Super Tuesday victory. “The fact that he’s been able to attract these huge numbers of people, so full of hate — I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything quite like this.”
Münzer, 74, is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and takes part in two different monthly groups with other survivors, who are politically engaged and vocal about it. “The topic [Trump] comes up all the time,” he said. “These are people of a variety of political stripes, but on this issue, I really think there is unanimity.”
I reached out to Münzer and other Holocaust survivors and scholars to better resolve my own inner tensions. The journalist in me — my skeptical, contrarian streak — is reluctant to succumb to the anxieties that fill my Facebook feed and dominate social discourse among like-minded people who are certain that we are witnessing a homegrown American version of the demagoguery that destroyed Europe in the last century.
The scholars, more analytical by nature, offer explanations to prove those fears exaggerated. The survivors have no such hesitation.
Münzer, a retired physician, traces his abhorrence and fear of Trump back to his experience as a very young child when the Nazis targeted Jews for extinction. “I owe my life to a Muslim Indonesian woman in Holland who risked her life to save me,” he recalled. “Anyone who singles out any kind of community for hate, I find appalling.”
Another survivor who volunteers at the museum, Halina Yasharoff Peabody, told me that she, too, finds herself in a unique state of apprehension over Trump’s candidacy. She was seven when the war broke out in Poland and survived only by the sheer guts and cunning of her mother, who secured false papers so that she and her two daughters could live as Catholics.
“He wants to be a dictator. We’ve had dictators and that can’t be good,” Peabody told me in a phone interview. “It seems unreal, what is happening. I don’t understand how people can follow a person who doesn’t know what the law is.”
Intellectually, I can dismiss their concerns. My innate skepticism and, frankly, my respect for American culture and history, make me want to reject the simplistic analogies of Trump to, say, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was motivated by a clear, if twisted, ideology; Trump’s “policies” are often just spontaneous pronouncements, without any coherence other than to demonize the other and make himself the answer to all that needs fixing in America today.
Hitler exploited a nation brought to its knees by a crippling world war and a severe depression; America was brought back from economic ruin by the very president Trump seeks to succeed in office, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, this country still has the world’s most powerful economy and military. Hitler skillfully leveraged state-sponsored violence against its own citizens; Trump’s self-centered campaign, ugly though it is, has no such mechanism at its disposal.
The historian Robert Paxton, interviewed recently in Slate, offered another fascinating distinction: Fascists like Hitler and Benito Mussolini blamed their national declines on rampant individualism and offered as a solution the subjugation of the individual to the community. Trump’s platform, if you could call it that, appears to favor more Republican-style freedom from government and communal responsibility.
But even Paxton noted the undeniable echoes: “The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book.”
And while it’s not fair to say that all Trump’s supporters hate Mexicans and Muslims and pesky question-asking journalists as much as the candidate does, it’s also possible that supporters will overlook those stands in favor of his legitimatization of their deepest resentments. As historian Deborah Lipstadt reminded me: “Some people didn’t approve of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but they went along with it because he was going to make Germany great again.”
So how seriously do we listen to the warnings of survivors? The few I spoke to hardly constitute a representative sampling, though I’m not the only one to note their grim assessments. Their fears could be compounded by their first-hand experience of Hitler’s horrors. They have seen the very worst that one human being can do to another, and that one leader can do to an entire continent. They have seen a cultured society crumble beneath its own prejudices. We, who have greater distance from the Holocaust, may actually have the ability to be a bit more clear-eyed about our current situation.
What struck me in speaking with these survivors is the way the Trump phenomenon has shaken their otherwise persistent faith in an America that they fled to for its tolerance and its ideals. “I came here for freedom,” Peabody said. “I don’t want not to be able to express myself.”
Even at this raw moment, I don’t envision those freedoms disappearing — and in fact, I’m proud of the many Jews, Republicans included, who are unequivocally repudiating Trump’s statements and tactics.
Still, I asked Peabody if she feels particularly vulnerable as a Jew. “I’m worried about every minority. I do know that my minority is always attacked. They always find me a good scapegoat,” she replied. “There is a lot of anger in the world, but this is no way to correct it.”
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.