As a young boy in France, Jay Frankston witnessed the rise of Hitler’s anti-Semitism leading up to the war and the Holocaust. The experience of watching so many people stand by and do nothing affirmed his belief in speaking up against wrongs, no matter how small.
In the late 1930s, Hitler’s anti-Semitism had spread to France. I was nine years old. On the notebooks I brought home from school, scribbled in children’s handwriting, were the words “DEATH TO JEWS” and “HANG THEM ALL.” My name then was Frankenstein, something other children could make fun of, but also something which labeled me as a Jew. So I ran from the horde of misguided children to avoid a black eye or a bloody nose and took refuge in the isolation of my room.
Then the war came and the beginning of the Holocaust. Fifteen percent of the French people actively collaborated with the Germans, joining the militia and participating in raids to round up Jews for deportation to concentration camps, even taking children when the Nazis hadn’t asked them to do so, and denouncing Jews who were in hiding. My wife Monique’s parents were among those who were denounced and were deported. They died in Auschwitz.
I have no feelings for those 15 percent who collaborated. They are like dead to me. But 80 percent of the French people did nothing. They just stood by while their friends and neighbors were carted off to their deaths in the ovens of the devil. They are the ones I hold accountable.
And I can’t help wondering what would have happened if people had spoken up? The Danes spoke up. When the Nazis came out with an order that all Jews would have to wear the yellow star, the King and the Queen came out wearing the yellow star and many Danes followed suit. Then they took the Jews at night in their fishing boats and ferried them across to Sweden where they were safe and survived the war. So only a few thousand Danish Jews died in the Holocaust. Fifty percent of the German people were Catholics. What if the Pope had come out with an encyclical that Catholics shall not participate in the Nazi atrocities under penalty of excommunication? How different things might have turned out.
And where are we today when so many things are happening in the world, in our country, in our cities, and in our neighborhoods? And what are we doing about it? I give Holocaust lectures at the middle school and at this point students point to Rwanda or Nigeria. “No,” I say. “Here! Right here!” And I tell them this story:
I was sitting in my car at a red light. In back of me was a huge truck and I saw the truck driver throw a lit cigarette out of the cab. I could think it terrible and do nothing but I got out of my car, picked up the lit cigarette and threw it back into the truck and said, “You lost something.” The truck driver was a big man and he could have flattened me, but I had to do it.
I believe in speaking up against wrongs no matter how small. We can all do that.
Jay Frankston was raised in Paris and came to the U.S. in 1942. He became a lawyer and practiced in New York for 20 years. In 1972, he gave up law and New York and moved to California where he became a college instructor. He is the nationally published author of several books, some of which have been condensed in Reader’s Digest and translated into 15 languages. His book A Christmas Story: A True Story has been called a classic. He has recently published a small epic novel entitled El Sereno, which takes place in Spain and has an authentic historical background covering the period of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.
Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc. with recording assistance from Rich Culbertson from KZXX in Mendocino, California
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