There is a strip mall across the street from Auschwitz.
From the commandant’s house at Plaszow it’s a short walk to McDonald’s.
Belzec is in a residential neighborhood.
I didn’t expect that.
In 2005, when I joined an interfaith pilgrimage to these camps where the Holocaust happened, it kept surprising me to find them located, not in deep woods hidden from prying eyes, but smack in the middle of urban areas.
I assumed all this development was new, that it had grown up in the decades since the war. But our guide told me these were always residential and commercial districts. Joe Engel, a Holocaust survivor in our group, said the same thing in a different way:
“People say they didn’t know. All the camps were so close to the city. How could they not know? You could smell the ashes, the flesh.”
The closeness of death factories to places where people lived, worshipped and shopped was chilling. It suggested that evil didn’t mind witnesses.
Saturday night, nearly eight decades after the death factories were closed, someone — more likely a gang of someones — toppled about 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. The same thing happened last week in St. Louis. And there have been dozens of false bomb threats at Jewish community centers in more than two dozen states, including Florida.
When the people of Poland were forced by their occupiers to stand witness to acts of mass atrocity, each had to decide how to respond. Some acquiesced willingly. Some looked the other way. And at risk of property and life, some fought back. They hid Jews from death and smuggled them to freedom.
What Linda Sarsour and Tarek el-Messidi did last week was not nearly so dramatic or risky, but it was certainly in the same spirit of outreach to the vulnerable Other. The two activists started a campaign on LaunchGood.com, a crowdfunding website for Muslims, asking their brothers and sisters in Islam to help raise $20,000 to repair the cemetery in St. Louis.
They reached that goal in three hours. As of Tuesday afternoon, their total stood north of $143,000. Sarsour and el-Messidi say the surplus from repairing the St. Louis cemetery will go toward the one in Philadelphia — and to a fund to repair any future acts of desecration.
Why would they do this?
On their LaunchGood page, they tell a story of the Prophet Muhammad once standing to pay his respects as a Jewish funeral procession passed by. When questioned about it, they say the prophet responded: “Is it not a human soul?”
And what greater way is there to honor that common soul than for members of one group of the despised to reach out to another? At a time when we confront so much of what is wrong with America, it is heartening to be reminded of what is right. Necessary, too.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a spike in right-wing extremism. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, gays, transgender men and women, all of the most vulnerable and marginalized, find themselves under renewed attack: harassment, vandalism and even murder.
Again, no one is equating any of that with the Holocaust. That’s not the point.
Rather, the point is the willingness to see what’s going on around you, what’s being done and to whom. In the digital age, you don’t need to live across from a death camp for that. Sarsour and el-Messidi remind us that we, like the Poles once did, bear witness to a campaign of hatred. And like them, we must decide:
What kind of witnesses shall we be?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald.