Shoes, the Holocaust, Muslim Americans & Me
Posted March 28, 2011on:
Growing up, my mom often suggested we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It was a way to encourage compassion for others. She did just that when she commented about someone who was crabby – “Maybe her feet hurt.”
Despite spending much of my life avoiding the Holocaust, I found myself two weeks ago attending a conference on Teaching the Holocaust at Viterbo University in La Crosse. Among the powerful talks was about the role of shoes.
Shoes saved lives in concentration camps and they provide a visual for the enormity of the Holocaust. One photo illustrates about 25,000 pairs of shoes, which represented one day’s death toll in the gas chambers.
The most frequent request of visitors to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is for the room with the shoes. Most other Holocaust museums have similar displays.
One day on public radio, I heard an interview with a man who had been working to alert the world to still another genocide. The horrors of the Holocaust during World War II should have been enough for the world to learn, but sadly never were.
What struck me about this interview was that he said to get the world’s attention, you can’t tell the story of six million deaths, one million, a thousand or even a hundred. Storytelling was most effective when it involved no more than two people.
Bring it down to a pair of shoes, which is what the Florida Holocaust Museum does in a display of one child’s shoes.
My family came to this country around the turn into the 20th Century so I was never told of any relatives who died in the Holocaust. I suppose there had to have been some distant relatives but my parents never discussed it.
What I do remember as a kid – maybe eighth grade – was watching a film of the liberation of a concentration camp in Sunday school. I couldn’t handle the gruesome sights of walking skeletons and stacked bodies so I turned away. I can still remember my Sunday school teacher putting her face in mine and saying, “Why are you looking away? Those are all Jews, you know.”
I was upset and told my mother, who discussed it with the rabbi. This was not appropriate.
Now I try to walk in the shoes of Muslim and Arab Americans who find themselves targets in this country because of the actions of a very small minority of people who have committed terrorism – as have a very small percentage of other people of other faiths, including Christians and Jews.
Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor of English at Columbia University in New York, spoke about a month ago at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse about his book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. He wrote:
“… since the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs and Muslims, two groups virtually unknown to most Americans prior to 2001, now hold the dubious distinction of being the first new communities of suspicion after the hard-won victories of the civil rights era. … In the eyes of some Americans, they [young Arab and Muslim Americans] have become collectively known as dangerous outsiders.”
His book tells the story of seven young Arab Americans, including one whose family was rounded up one night and kept under detention for three months in horrific jail conditions. Eventually, the family was released and allowed to stay in this country.
Sunday night I watched a CNN special: “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.” It is the story of the people of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, fighting an Islamic Center in their community. This huge center will meet the spiritual, social and educational needs of a growing population of Muslims, some of whom had lived in the city since the 1990s.
After a permit for construction had been approved, some citizens got upset and organized protests against it. A movement grew of people frightened to have terrorists in their backyards. It was horrifying to many Muslims, particularly those who had lived in the second for two or more decades.
A sign announcing future construction of the Islamic Center was vandalized, but then replaced without cost. Then equipment used to prepare the ground for the center was destroyed by arson.
Some citizens sued, seeking to block the construction, but the judge ruled against the restraining order and allowing construction to continue. “We’re not privileged to render decisions in accordance with our own opinions, whims and desires. We must follow the law,” said Rutherford County Chancellor Robert Corlew.
Opponents vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It all reminds me of the groupthink or maybe groupfear that allowed the Holocaust to happen. I’m not calling the folks in Murfreesboro Nazis, or the folks in New York who opposed an Islamic Center Nazis. Only the Nazis were Nazis.
But in the 1930s Jews were rounded up and synagogues burned without anyone speaking up. Jews and other minorities were painted with a very broad brush of being dangerous outsiders. That same brush is now applied to Muslims.
Demonized in the United States before the Muslims were: Native Americans once labeled “merciless Indian savages:”
- African-Americans considered a lesser race
- Irish and Italian Americans attacked for their Catholic faith
- German Americans considered of being spies in World War I
- Jewish Americans accused of seeking world domination
- Japanese Americans sent to detention camps during World War II
- Chinese Americans accused of being Communist spies in the Cold War era
- Hispanic Americans were considered dangerous to American culture despite being in this area before there was a United States.
Writer Bayoumi based the title of his book on a question posed to African-American leader W.E.B. Du Bois a century ago, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
“A century later, Arabs and Muslims are the new ‘problem’ of American society,” Bayoumi wrote.
It is time to stop demonizing groups of people. As my mother said to me decades ago, take a walk in their shoes.