Werner Coppel knows a thing or two about racism: It killed his family. A survivor of Auschwitz, Coppel says the blame for the Holocaust extends beyond the people who ran the death camps. The Nazis never could have killed so many people without acquiescence from the majority of Germans.
Racism, like all crimes, exists in varying degrees almost everywhere, according to Coppel. While he sees in this country some of the traces of the hatred he experienced in Germany, Coppel says many people in the United States oppose the most extreme hate groups.
"Let's face it — prejudice is with us in America today," he says. "We are not immune."
Coppel told his story May 25 to more than 20 students from a Cincinnati Public Schools adult literacy class. Speaking at Hebrew Union College along with Racelle Weiman, director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity at Hebrew Union College, Coppel emphasized the role of the silent majority in fighting — or fostering — hatred and violence.
Coppel was 8 years old when Hitler took power in 1933.
He spent the next 12 years in Germany, including 21 months in Auschwitz, escaping during a prisoner march in January 1945. His family did not survive.
Many are familiar with Hitler's rise to power, the war, and his suicide in a bunker in Berlin. But anyone who blames the Nazis alone for the millions of Jewish deaths during World War II isn't looking at the big picture, Coppel says.
The Nazis never could have killed so many people without passive consent from the majority of Germans and a lack of effort by the U.S. government, among others, to combat the Holocaust as it was happening, he says.
By 1944, U.S. spy planes had taken pictures of the Auschwitz complex. But U.S. bombers were forbidden to bomb the camp when they passed overhead in August 1944. At the time, its ovens were consuming the corpses of 12,000 people a day, Coppel says.
Time and time again Germans — including religious leaders, doctors, and other educated people — said little or nothing, even when it was clear the Nazis were killing Jews. Without that silent German majority, the Nazis never could have perpetrated the Holocaust, Coppel says. The seed for all this was a longstanding German prejudice against the Jews, which Hitler inflamed into national policy.
But the seeds for that kind of hatred and prejudice aren't unique to World War II Germany, according to Weiman. Every society has minorities who are vilified by the majority culture, she says.
"Anywhere, in any community, there's always an outcast," Weiman says.
The Nazis didn't immediately close Germany's borders and throw everyone in death camps. The Holocaust was a gradual but efficient process that began with banning Jews from public buses and park benches.
Businesses were a prime beneficiary of racism in Germany. Slave labor is good for profits. In Auschwitz, Coppel made artificial rubber for Buno, a German company. Last week the German government agreed to pay $4.4 billion in compensation to Coppel and 1.2 million others who worked in slave labor camps.
It was not Germany alone that persecuted Jews. Other countries, including the United States, restricted Jewish immigration. Many Holocaust victims waited months for a U.S. visa that never arrived.
While people often associate racism with the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, racism has many degrees, Weiman says. People have to speak out when they hear others say racist or hateful things, she says.
Like Coppel, Rondell Evans, 32, of Fairmount, knows a thing or two about racism. Few blacks lived in Northside when he moved there in the mid-1970s. Whites who lived there taunted him and threw things at him, he says.
A student in the class Coppel addressed, Evans says Coppel has a "strong soul."
"It made me think that we could work through just about anything if we keep trying," Evans says.
Another student, Pamela Koenig, liked Weiman's ideas for fighting prejudice: Tell people who make racist comments to stop.
"In other words, one voice does make a difference," Koenig says. "It enlightened me a great deal."
Each person, according to Koenig, has a responsibility to improve race relations "everywhere we go, everything we do, everyone we meet." ©