Responding to the Swastika



Reprinted from Not IN Our Town

Hundreds gathered in Sacramento on the steps of the California state capitol for a rally against anti-Semitism, March 9, 2015.(Michael Alcalay) Credit: JTA, Michael Alcalay

By Becki Cohn-Vargas
Not In Our School Director

Becki Cohn-VargasAs a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up hearing about my parents’ struggle to stay alive. Both my parents were born in Germany. Separately, as teens they each barely escaped with their families after Kristallnacht, my father as a refugee to Shanghai and my mother to England.

Even as I go to Temple on the Jewish High Holidays each year, with a police officer or security guard outside protecting us while we pray, I had not been frightened that anti-Semitism would rise to those horrific proportions again. Only once in my life was I called a “dirty Jew.” Yet, recently, as we heard about Jews being targeted and murdered in both France and Denmark, a fear rose inside me. After all, it is only 70 years after Auschwitz, and I still have living relatives who have been in concentration camps.

And then, less than 100 miles from my home, a Swastika was spray-painted in red on a Jewish fraternity at the University of California at Davis. Nathaniel Bernhard, vice president of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, told the Sacramento Bee, “Jewish people still can’t feel safe on their own campuses and in their own houses…Anti-Semitism still exists today. It’s not a fairy tale.” Recently, the National Demographic Survey of American Jewish College Students, produced by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, found that more than half of Jewish students at American colleges had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism within the previous academic year.

Although I cannot help but feel that visceral fear, I believe in my heart that most people do want to get along. A Quaker family in England took my mother’s family in when they managed to escape from from Germany.

As an educator, I have devoted my life to ending hatred and bigotry. That is what drew me to work at Not in Our Town (NIOT). I try to pay attention to both the small and large acts of anti-Semitism and hate against people of all backgrounds and identities. I try to have a laser sharp focus on naming and responding to acts of hate against any individual or group.

Whether it is graffiti with swastikas or teens who desecrated a Jewish cemetery in France, like canaries in the gold mine, youth are reflecting some of the hate we have allowed to fester in our society. But, I also see signs of hope in the powerful responses:

In Davis, CA, Muslim, Sikh and other student leaders joined together to make a statement condemning the swastika painted on the fraternity wall.
In Sacramento, CA, when a swastika replaced the Jewish star on the Israeli flag, community leaders of many faiths swiftly responded by holding a rally on the steps of the California State Capitol to condemn the act.
After swastikas were painted on a Jewish Fraternity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the three Greek Councils, Panhellenic, IFC and National Pan-Hellenic, issued a joint statement, “As Vanderbilt Greek men and women…We find the acts committed against AEPi insensitive, appalling, and disgusting. We stand up in solidarity with AEPi, Hillel, Chabad, and the entire Jewish community both here at Vanderbilt and across the country.”
I am heartened by these responses, and they remind me why our work at Not In Our Town and Not In Our School is so important. I look forward to continuing to join with others across the country to speak up about small and large intolerant acts toward any group that is targeted by hate.


75 Years After Kristallnacht, the Struggle for Co-Existence Continues (reprinted from


 Time Magazine Kristallnacht

Source: Time.Com, Kristallnacht in Words and Photographs

By Becki Cohn-Vargas, Not In Our School Director

Seventy-five years ago, on Nov. 9, 1938, my father was 12 years old in Berlin on Kristallnacht, the fateful “Night of the Broken Glass.” He describes walking to his school the following morning past the smashed windows of Jewish shops, ransacked and looted. His school, housed in the synagogue, was engulfed in flames as the fire department stood by with hoses to protect neighboring houses, but made no attempt to put out the flames. The night of Kristallnacht, my father’s Uncle Leo was arrested by the Gestapo and was taken to a concentration camp along with 30,000 other Jews.
The top Nazi leadership gave orders that the “‘spontaneous’ rioters were to take no measures endangering non-Jewish German life or property” and “that police officials should arrest as many Jews as local jails could hold, preferably young, healthy men,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Kristallnacht was a turning point in the Nazi policy of anti-Semitism that led to the horrific genocidal acts of the Holocaust. A turning point of despair.  Saturday marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when more than 267 Synagogues and 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany and Austria were desecrated by the Nazis in a single night.
What would have happened in Nazi Germany if the people of Berlin and other towns stood up and said “No” to the violence?
Twenty years ago, on Hanukkah in 1993, over 10,000 people did stand up in their town. White supremacists had moved in to Billings, MT and were carrying out escalating acts of hate and violence. The year of racist violence came to a head one bitterly cold night when a brick was thrown through a six-year-old Jewish boy’s bedroom window, where he had placed the lighted candles of the family’s Hanukkah menorah. The town rose as one to say, “Not in Our Town,” putting paper menorahs in their windows and a national movement was born.

These historical moments were both critical markers in the ongoing struggle for human dignity and co-existence.

Above: Neo-Nazis march in Germany. Source: DeMotix
Below: Hundreds come out to support Leith ND.
Source: Indian Country

That struggle continues. In 2013, 1,000 neo-Nazis marched in Dortmund, Germany, the town where my mother was born, also a site of Kristallnacht horror. But 15,000 protested. Also in 2013, neo-Nazis struck again in Leith, ND, a rural town of 24 citizens with a mayor and city council. A white supremacist bought 12 plots with the goal of taking over the town and turning it into a hub for white supremacists. This summer, he donated some of the property to fellow neo-Nazis who staged a rally this September waving flags with huge swastikas. But even though the nearest town was two hours away, hundreds protested and the struggle to keep the neo-Nazis from taking over the town continues.

As we remember the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and Billings, we must stay vigilant, teach our children to speak up and continue to stand up and stand together as we work for the safe and inclusive world we want to leave to future generations.

Inspire your school and community to stand up to hate. Show Not in Our Town: Billings in your school. Find an excerpt and how to purchase the DVD here. Educators can also use these greatFacing History and Ourselves resources to discuss Kristallnacht in their classroom.