How the Holocaust shaped Bernie Sanders’s politics

How the Holocaust shaped Bernie Sanders’s politics

In a rare interview on his Jewish roots, the 2020 hopeful argues there is a valid comparison between Trump’s America and Hitler’s Germany

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, speaks during the National Education Association Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum, July 5, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, speaks during the National Education Association Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum, July 5, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders thinks US President Donald Trump represents a unique threat to the body politic. The most powerful man in America, he argues, is a demagogue and a racist. He targets and oppresses racial and ethnic minorities. He stirs discord and division.

But it’s Trump’s hostility to immigrants that bothers Sanders with an acute resonance, he said. In a rare interview this week in which the Democratic presidential hopeful opened up about his personal story, he accused the president of trying to “demonize people because they were not born in this country.”

“That clearly is something that I take personally,” he said.

The reason: Sanders’s father Eli immigrated from what is now Poland in 1921 at the age of 17. His name was Eliasz Gitman, but, Sanders pointed out, his name was “changed along the way.”

“I’m the proud son of an immigrant,” Sanders said.

Almost all of his father’s family that stayed behind was killed in the Holocaust.

From ‘The Auschwitz Album,’ Jews wait in the grove adjacent to the gas chambers (Yad Vashem)

Speaking to Yahoo News, Sanders said that his family’s history influenced his politics and views on immigration. “I think the thing that impacted me most was the Holocaust and … what it did to my father’s family and to six million people,” he explained.

While Sanders often seemed reluctant during his 2016 presidential run to invoke his Jewishness, he hasn’t shied away from it this time around. He has often referenced his Jewish background, and made note of his father’s family in his campaign kickoff speech last spring. “Virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism,” he said.

In the Yahoo interview, Sanders compared Trump and Adolf Hitler. He didn’t go so far as his political ally, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has called immigration detention facilities near the southern border “concentration camps,” but he said there are clear parallels between the bigotry and intolerance of both men.

US President Donald Trump observes a moment of silence at the White House to mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, on September 11, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

“What we have is a president who is a demagogue, and the comparison is that this is a president who is a racist,” Sanders said. “And it’s unbelievable that in the year 2019 we have a president who is not using dog whistles, he is an overt racist.”

Sanders went on, “He claimed that Barack Obama, the first African-American president in this country, was not born in the United States. That was nothing less than racism. His going after Muslims is nothing less than racism. His attacks on Mexican-Americans is racist. That’s what you got.”

‘Not much of a Talmudic scholar’

The 2020 presidential candidate also spoke about growing up with his immigrant parents in a Brooklyn neighborhood that, at the time, was comprised mostly of other Jewish immigrants.

Sanders’s father was a paint salesman, while his mother stayed at home to raise Sanders and his brother Larry. Despite having little money, the family put their children through Hebrew school. But, according to Sanders’s own recollection, he was not a standout student.

Democratic Presidential candidate US Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent of Vermont) greets supporters at Brooklyn College on March 2, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

“I am very proud to be Jewish,” he said. “I would tell you that I was not much of a Talmudic scholar. I think mostly we were throwing spitballs.”

While he learned how to read and write in Hebrew, Sanders said there was one problem — he never understood what any of it actually meant.

Instead, he said his friends would make a game out of it, competing over who could read the text the fastest. “We did speed reading,” he said. “We used to have races reading Hebrew. Unbelievable, but true.”

Sanders grew up in a small rent-controlled apartment in Midwood, where he said his family “all spoke Yiddish.” Some of them acclimated to America quicker than others. “My father learned English … pretty well. He did not have an accent,” he recalled. “My grandmother always had a very heavy accent.”

The reporter asked Sanders what Yiddish phrases he would use to describe Trump.

“Oy vey,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s about it.”

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