When the world is tolerant of Nazis, people die
A picture of child prisoners taken just after the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviet army in January 1945. | AP

I’ve never been one to write about politics. If there’s something I want to say, I can usually bet that someone smarter and more eloquent has already said it, and you should probably just go read their article or post instead. I try to make it my business to listen more than I speak when it comes to social and political issues. Current events, though, viewed through the lens of my own family story, have compelled me to speak.

The alt-right, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, neo-fascists—whatever terminology comes into fashion makes no difference. If you think we should be tolerant of them, you need to open a history book. If you think anti-fascists are over-reacting to an isolated group of men exercising their right to free speech in a park, consider yourself very fortunate that you and yours have the luxury to live untouched and unthreatened by racism.

My mother’s mother came with her parents to Canada in 1938. Her older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends stayed behind in Poland and lived under Nazi occupation.

I’d ask them to tell you what happens when we “tolerate” Nazis, but I can’t—they were all killed. Some of them were killed 73 years ago this month, fighting Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising. Of those who remained in Poland, not a single member of my grandmother’s huge family survived.

My father’s grandfather came from Czechoslovakia. By 1945, he was the last living member of his entire family, completely alone in the world. Because, when Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia, the rest of the world powers failed to stop or even condemn it.

I was fortunate enough to know my grandmother and great-grandfather quite well. They told me their stories, painful as it was for them, because it was important not to forget. It’s on their behalf that I’m writing this. They have passed away, but I did not forget. This is what happens when we tolerate hatred.

I will never forget the tears that welled up in my great-grandfather’s eyes when he spoke of the Holocaust, nor the anguish on my grandmother’s face when she recounted how her family was robbed from her. I couldn’t imagine there was a chance that the danger of Nazism could ever be forgotten or ignored, but I suppose that was a bit naive.

I never thought I’d see so many young people proudly wearing swastikas in public. I never thought I’d see the President of the United States fail to condemn, immediately and vehemently, Nazi white supremacists in America. I never thought I’d see a sitting president refer to a group of Nazis as “very fine people,” while calling the protestors, including the woman murdered by one of those Nazis, “violent.”

Of course, calling a murder victim “violent” is nothing new. We’ve seen far, far too much of that to be shocked. If those in power sympathize more with the perpetrators than with the victims, whether the victim be a protestor, a father, or a twelve-year-old child, the word “violent” gets thrown around in an attempt to quell Americans’ outrage and cast the homicide in a more justified light. But in the words of Heather Heyer, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

As both history and current events have shown us, not paying attention can have tragic consequences.

When the world is tolerant of Nazis, people die.

When people are tolerant of white supremacy, people die.

When people tolerate systemic racism because “it doesn’t affect me,” people die.

White supremacy has been a constant and pervasive part of America since Columbus first saw land, but progress to eradicate it—however painfully slow, however hard those with power fought against it—was there. Whether the history books choose to acknowledge them or not, good people have been fighting and dying for every inch of that progress this whole time. Innocent people who never asked to be martyrs—people whose loved ones will feel the pain and trauma of their loss for the rest of their lives.

To regress is to insult them, erase them. We can’t regress—but we are regressing. I will not tolerate that, and neither should you.


Alexandra Hoekstra-Knight
Alexandra Hoekstra-Knight

Alexandra Hoekstra-Knight is a Purdue University alumna and former research scientist. She lives in Northwest Indiana with her husband and son. She is currently researching and writing a book about immigrant and labor struggles in Reconstruction-era Western New York.