I remember visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington when I was twelve, maybe thirteen years old.
We walked past row after row of photographs — lives lost to the evil of the Nazi regime.
We read about Hitler’s rise to power in post-World-War-I Europe.
We saw a stack of shoes, left as a silent memorial to the men, women, and children who would never walk again.
In the Hall of Remembrance, an eternal flame burns in front of a marble inscription from Deuteronomy:
“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children’s children.”
In that same hall, we lit candles and sat in silence, vowing “Never again.”
I remember the weight of that moment, the feeling that my act of lighting that candle had power, as if an awkward homeschooled teenager at a museum in Washington D.C. could somehow stop the tide of evil with a flicker of candlelight.
A few years ago in a small Southern town, I met a man who fought in World War II. Eventually, we became friends; I’d walk down to his house on summer evenings and sit in his garage. He’d offer me a beer, and then he’d tell me stories about the war.
He told me about how he was captured as a prisoner of war, about how he lay in a prison camp with a fractured back, about how their German prison camp was liberated just days before he was going to be killed.
He showed me souvenirs he brought back from the war — spoons, medals, stuff like that.
One day he pulled a bag out of a corner in the garage and unfolded a Nazi flag. He’d stolen it from the camp when he was liberated by the Allies, kept it so that we wouldn’t forget.
I stood in his garage looking at that monstrous orange and black flag draped over the pool table, the swastika like an ugly spider perched in the middle. It didn’t seem real. Nazis are the stuff of grandparents’ stories and Christopher Nolan movies. They are part of history, black and white and grainy and on the other side of the sea.
It was startling to see their captured flag in front of me, to touch it with my own hands. It was too real.
I saw that same goddamn Nazi flag fly on American soil last weekend. Not as a reminder of a defeated enemy, but as a rallying cry for white supremacy.
I saw my fellow white American Millennials light torches and march through American streets, chanting the slogans of Nazi Germany.
I saw my fellow white Americans call for the extermination of non-white “vermin”, for ethnic cleansing, for the establishment of a pure white America.
Never again, right?
This seems simple to me.
Nazis are terrorizing and intimidating our communities with their flags and slogans and salutes.
KKK members are beating black young men in our streets with sticks and clubs.
This is the shit from the movies, from the black and white history-book pictures.
Today. On our soil.
And I’m realizing that the candle I lit the Holocaust Museum was a joke. That “never again” was cheap words.
Because when White Supremacy rears its head in America, all of a sudden “never again” turns into “Well, let’s hear them out.”
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemöller
These words also hang on the walls of the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But there’s more to Niemöller’s words than just what we see in this tidy poem. In a 1946 speech he goes on to say:
“When the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers. … We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians — should I be my brother’s keeper?
And now they have come again, with their torches and flags and slogans and salutes, and you are repeating history.
They come for the antifa, and you do not speak out
Instead, you say “antifa is violent too.”
They come for black lives, and you do not speak out.
Instead, you say “Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization too.”
I used to think that when we quoted Niemöller, it meant something more than nostalgic moral superiority.
I was wrong.
I’m trying to convey to you how utterly disappointed and angry I am with the religion of my upbringing.
I honestly thought you were different than the Christians who supported Hitler’s rise to power.
I honestly thought you were different than the Christians who supported the KKK’s terroristic agenda.
I honestly thought you were different than the Christians who refused to join Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement.
I was wrong.
Because when you have the chance to say “never again”, you don’t.
Because German Christians didn’t think that Communists were worth protecting.
Because White American Christians thought Martin Luther King was too radical.
Because you think that antifa is just as bad as Nazis.
Because you think Black Lives Mater is a terrorist organization.
Because you’ll take to the internet and tell me that everyone is at fault.
Because you’ll look me in the eye and tell me we shouldn’t take sides.
And because you elected a President who will stand in front of our nation and defend White Supremacy on American soil.
I can’t help wondering:
How the fuck did you think “never again” was going to work?
Did you think that if evil reared its head we were going to refuse to take sides?
You who cheer for our World War II veterans in church every 4th of July, you who believe that the right to bear arms is your God-given heritage, when ACTUAL FUCKING NAZIS invade and terrorize our communities, have you all suddenly become pacifists?
Did you not think that “never again” might involve violence at some point?
In condemning “violence on many sides”, you condemn yourself.
You show the evil in your own heart, in the heart of the religion that I once considered good.
You don’t really care if they come for the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, the Jews, the Antifa, or Black Lives Matter.
As long as they don’t come for you.
Never again will I believe it when you say “Never again.”
Never again will I believe it when you say you would have fought Hitler, or punched a Nazi, or resisted the KKK, or marched with the Civil Rights movement.
Because it’s all happening again, and far too many White American Christians are nowhere to be found.
I used to think that it couldn’t happen here, that we wouldn’t let it happen here.
I used to think the candle I lit that day in the Holocaust Museum meant something.
published August 16, 2017
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