A genocide starts with ‘them vs. us’

Holocaust survivor tells Jefferson students to advocate against injustice

Holocaust survivor and Minneapolis resident Fred Amram speaks to Jefferson Community School students on May 15.

The murder of 6 million European Jews didn’t just happen overnight, Holocaust survivor Fred Amram said. It started with the othering of Europe’s Jewish population through measures like stripping their citizenship and making them wear a yellow Star of David.

“Whenever there’s a genocide, it starts with ‘them vs. us,'” Amram said. “You see how it happens one thing at a time.”

Amram, an 85-year-old Minneapolis resident, spoke to Jefferson Community School students about the Nazis’ systematic discrimination on May 15. He told them to take a stand against injustice, adding that such action could have saved countless Jews during World War II.

“What you do matters,” he said.

A native of Hanover, Germany, Amram was born less than a year after Adolf Hitler became the country’s chancellor. As a young Jewish boy, he was not allowed to sit on park benches and was kicked out of his neighborhood ice cream shop. Eventually, he said, the Nazi secret police sought out his father, who hid with non-Jewish neighbors in their apartment building

Life in Germany gradually became more intolerable for Jews, Amram said, noting that his father was forced to perform hard labor. He said he watched his synagogue burn in November 1938 in the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom, during which Germans burned thousands of synagogues and arrested tens of thousands of Jewish men.

“The world knew” about the violence, Amram said, but “people didn’t care.”

Amram and his parents escaped Germany in 1939 and fled to Amsterdam, where he stayed with his aunt, uncle and baby cousin. From there, they made their way to Belgium and then to New York City, where Amram lived until moving to Minnesota in the 1950s.

Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, including his baby cousin.

Amram said he thinks the bystanders to the Holocaust were just as guilty as the perpetrators. He said he can’t forgive the Germans when he thinks of his cousin but that if he’s “hating all the time, then I’ll be sick.”

“There’s a new generation of Germans who are embarrassed by what their grandparents did,” he said. “They’re good people.”

Amram also said he empathizes with people who come to America as refugees from different countries, noting how difficult it was for him to learn the new culture as a newcomer.

Jefferson English teacher Carlyn Shanley, who coordinated Amram’s visit, said she grew up with a strong Holocaust education and that she thought it would benefit her students to hear a survivor speak. She said most of her students had never heard about the Holocaust before their studies this semester.

Eighth-grader Brandol Romero said he appreciated Amram’s talk, noting that the Holocaust is a sad part of history but one that’s important to learn about. He said it’s important to view all people equally and not as outsiders.