My grandfather was 19 years old when he was forcibly removed from his home in Poland and placed in a Nazi death camp. The year was 1939 and it would be six more years before he would be released from the relentless physical and mental torture commonly employed by the Nazi guards to control the inmates. A few years later, my grandmother would follow him into the merciless concentration camps. Both my maternal grandparents would be stripped of their youth in the name of Judenrein, the German word used to refer to a town “cleansed of Jews.”
The Nazis sought to homogenize Europe, to rid the continent of those they viewed as lesser. After the Holocaust, the world vowed to never let such intolerance prevail again. Unfortunately, as is all too clear from numerous modern day conflicts, we have not fully succeeded in this promise. However, if we cannot yet succeed on the global scene, it is imperative that we do so in our own communities.
I am not an overly religious person, but if someone were to ask me what religion I practice I would unhesitatingly respond with “Judaism.” On a day-to-day basis, this part of my identity rarely surfaces. I do not actively seek to surround myself with Jewish people, I can barely recite the most basic prayers and I have not attended synagogue in years. However, when I heard about the vandalism of the Alpha Epsilon Pi house, which included the spray painting of swastikas on the house’s front porch, I became defensive.
Due to the profound connection I share with my grandparents, the act felt personal. Something about the crooked lines of that hateful symbol both terrifies and angers me, as I believe it would both my grandfather and grandmother. My grandfather lost his entire family, save for one sister, because of what this symbol represents. It is easy to advocate that the swastika is just a symbol, a sign that meant something very different before the Nazis warped it for their own purposes (with roots in Sanskrit).
However, symbols like these can elicit incredibly strong feelings, regardless of their origins. I do not think many people can fully understand, as I myself will never truly understand, all the convoluted implications of the swastika. I do know, however, that today, as in the 1930s and 40s, it is used to demean, oppress and terrorize. Hate crimes such as these are disturbing less for how they manifest themselves and more for their purposes: to encourage prejudice and inflict fear.
After his harrowing experience, my grandfather chose to reject religion altogether. I do not want this trend to continue due to the blind eye society so often turns to intolerance. Fortunately, the Emory community has chosen to face this issue with a firm hand. Religion can be an amazing thing when practiced properly. It creates community, inspires goodness and encourages peace. Religion can bring people together or it can tear people apart; I hope that we as a community choose to advocate the former.
As the generation of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, it has become increasingly more important to remember the devastating consequences of intolerance. While disturbing thoughts run through my mind about what my grandparents endured during the worst years of their lives, I will try to remember that Emory, despite this upsetting act, is still the supportive and tolerant community it has always been. Hatred is powerful. But acceptance and understanding are even more powerful.
– Jordana Signer is a College senior from Washington, D.C.