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Interview'Demagogues have crowds just waiting to follow the big lie'

On surviving Auschwitz. And watching a man in Camp Auschwitz shirt storm Capitol

Irene Fogel Weiss, 90, who lost most of her family in the camp, saw the January 6 assault unfold on TV from her nearby home. She has a message for US Jews

Irene Fogel Weiss points to a photo of herself upon arrival in Auschwitz in May 1944. (Lesley Weiss/ via JTA)
Irene Fogel Weiss points to a photo of herself upon arrival in Auschwitz in May 1944. (Lesley Weiss/ via JTA)

JTA — When Irene Fogel Weiss watched rioters storm the US Capitol, just miles from her home in suburban Virginia, her thoughts turned to her parents murdered by the Nazis nearly 80 years earlier.

“As I was watching, I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t be like my parents,” the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I should think about doing something, although the thoughts were very vague because just like my parents with six children, you don’t just pick up a family and leave your life. So of course I have no specific plans, but it came into my head that I should think about it.”

Weiss was tuned to her television on January 6 from her home in Fairfax, just outside of Washington, DC, where supporters of then-US president Donald Trump had gathered to protest the results of the November election. Some broke into the Capitol trying to stop the election from being certified in an insurrection that sent lawmakers into hiding and left five people dead.

The insurrection added new resonance to the story Weiss has told countless times to schoolchildren and synagogue groups about her experiences before and during the Holocaust. As a child in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia, Weiss and her five siblings were banned from attending school while Jewish men, including her father, were sent to labor camps. Soon Weiss and her family were rounded up and sent to a ghetto, where they lived with hundreds of other families in a factory building. Eventually they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Most of her family were among the approximately 1 million Jews murdered at the death camp in occupied Poland. Only Irene, her sister and aunt survived. She immigrated to the United States in 1947.

Weiss — a retired schoolteacher, Orthodox Jew and avid news consumer — said she spotted the “Camp Auschwitz” shirt worn by one rioter almost immediately. She spoke with JTA about her reaction to that image, what she hopes Jewish Americans take away from January 6 and why she’s not giving up on the United States.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rioters try to break through a police barrier at the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

JTA: You were in Auschwitz. How did seeing the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt make you feel?

Weiss: It’s a very scary thing to see because it’s very similar to the way things escalated back in Europe. I’ve often been asked, way before this, can something like what happened in Europe happen here? And I always said yes, all you need is a charismatic person who is a demagogue, because that kind of person has a following waiting out there in the world for him and they follow the big lie. So I was very disturbed, and some of my friends and relatives who are survivors were also very anxious.

Did you get on the phone and call other survivors about what was going on?

I have a few surviving relatives. I have a relative who’s even older than I am. She’s 98, and she was frantic, just to see escalation and how people followed, just like in Germany. People follow this, it starts slowly. And then it seems like it affects people’s associations and jobs and political connections.

Robert Keith Packer’s shirt, right, was one of many hate symbols present at the storming of the Capitol. Other rioters constructed a noose. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP Images and screenshot from Reddit via JTA)

So what was the big lie then?

The big lie then was that everything that was wrong in the country was the Jews’ fault. They started the war, they’re usurping the wealth, they’re spreading illness, they have a secret alliance, they’re undermining the country. It escalated to the point where the big lie said that the Jews’ blood is polluted, that you can’t marry one, you can’t work for a Jew, you can’t go to a Jewish doctor, lawyer, you can’t patronize a Jewish store. Little by little this big lie took its toll and the German population pulled away from Jews.

Neighbors didn’t speak to each other, Jewish children were thrown out of school, and it just escalated. They found a scapegoat and they beat it and beat it and beat it and began to make laws so that it wasn’t just talk and propaganda. Then the Nuremberg Laws, about 200 of them, spelled out all the things that Jews could not participate in, that they were no longer citizens, they couldn’t fly the German flag, any kind of their books were burned, their famous artists and musicians were fired. In other words, they were closed out of all life in Germany.

The worst part was that the law no longer protected Jews. That was put into a law that the Jews will not be protected, cannot bring a lawsuit and so on. Then anybody and everybody could do whatever they wanted to do. And they did.

That’s the really dangerous thing. My concern really is not with a demagogue, they know what to do. It’s with all the reasonable people who fall for it.

Very educated, normal, solid, thoughtful people will fall for the big lie. The big lie was really Hitler’s best friend. He even appointed a minister of propaganda, whose job was to emphasize the big lie in every way, through books, pictures, placards. That’s the really dangerous thing. My concern really is not with a demagogue, they know what to do. It’s with all the reasonable people who fall for it.

Then-US president Donald Trump speaks during a rally protesting the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as president, shortly before the assault on the US Capitol, Wednesday, January 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What do you feel is the big lie now? Is it the same, or is it different?

The big lie now is actually what was the big lie there, of America First nationalism. Nationalism is filled with big lies. We kept hearing that there and here, too, that we are the best, we will not let in anybody else, we are the people who belong here and we don’t want anybody else in Germany.

You said that you always told people this could happen again. What made you so sure?

Well, Jewish immigrants, us, the survivors, when we came to this country, we became very patriotic. We loved this country, we loved the Constitution. It wasn’t perfect, but overall it was respected and it protected the people, which included immigrants. So Jews who came here had the freedom to settle down, get jobs, raise their children and send them to college. We were not afraid of the law.

In Europe, and Germany during those years, when the law doesn’t protect you, that is a very frightening thing because then the police stand by while anybody else can hurt you. We’re concerned now because there are loopholes in the Constitution that those who are nationalists can take advantage of. The loopholes let people follow a demagogue that brings out the weirdos, the anti-Semites and those who feel that they can do whatever they want because the law is not going to crack down on them.

Illustrative: The aftermath of the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom in Germany, November 1938. (public domain)

How did you find out about what was happening at the Capitol?

When you live in the suburbs of Washington, DC, national news is local news here. I’m very interested in national news and the US government, always have been. I was 13 years old when my family was taken to Auschwitz. At 13, there was no true truth in the newspapers or on the radio. It was all lies. But nevertheless, we listened and watched and read and filled in the blanks of what we were reading. Even then, I was very interested in what was going on in the world, I listened to the grownups and the discussions. It was very important to know what was going on, even before they cracked down on us so horribly.

At 13, there was no true truth in the newspapers or on the radio. It was all lies. But nevertheless, we listened and watched and read and filled in the blanks

I’ve been in the Capitol many times. This is our neighborhood. And we pass it every time to go from here to there. That invasion of the Capitol is the culmination of the demagogue’s lies. I hope it never goes as far as Germany, but the groundwork is made for it.

As I was watching, I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t be like my parents, I should think about doing something, although the thoughts were very vague because just like my parents with six children, you don’t just pick up a family and leave your life. So of course I have no specific plans, but it came into my head that I should think about it.

People gather near the stage of a pro-Trump rally at Marine Park in Brooklyn, New York on October 25, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

What would you like Jewish Americans to take away from this?

What really worried me is that some of our Jewish people put the emphasis on the wrong thing. These nationalistic movements always have heavy anti-Semitism. That’s one of their features, that the Jew is always the other, who doesn’t belong. And that is happening here. But if some other good things were done for the Jews in relation to Israel or other laws that were passed, they balance those two and think the good is going to outweigh the bad. Well, that’s OK up to a point. When there is this vicious anti-Semitism, you have to re-balance what you think.

So what I noticed about the Jewish community is a large number of them are worried about the effect of socialism. What they don’t understand is that Jews should worry about the tendencies of fascism that’s growing in this country and forget about socialism versus capitalism. That’s not the issue.

Watch to see how fast the nationalistic fascism is growing because that is the one that scares survivors of the Holocaust

When you see that fascism is rising in this country, and some aspects of the government and the leaders of the government are on the side of this new movement of nationalism and fascism, then drop everything else and just worry about this rising fascism because that is the problem that will ruin all life for Jews here just like it did in Germany. Watch to see how fast the nationalistic fascism is growing because that is the one that scares survivors of the Holocaust.

Protestors carrying guns and flags stand outside the Ohio Statehouse January 17, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Now that the election results were honored and Joe Biden was sworn in as president, do you feel a sense of hope, like things are going to be different?

It’s still very scary. It’s gone too far. And it has to be reversed. It isn’t just for Jews, for heaven’s sake! It’s what this country stands for. This is a very special country. We can’t turn this into a fascist place.

I don’t want people to think that I am totally hopelessly despondent. I’m not. As someone who experienced Auschwitz, and the loss of my family at the age of 13, I have had to grow up and have a normal life in addition to having had very serious lessons about life. But I’m not sitting here wringing my hands. I am not desperately in the dumps. I am reflective, I’m hoping for the best.

If it seems like I think America is finished, I don’t. We have a new government, we have new laws coming up, hopefully the pandemic will pass. And this whole thing will lift.

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