Junior Laura Martasin has heard “Jew” jokes since she was in the second grade. She’s been asked if a gold necklace she used to wear was a pot of gold because she was Jewish. She’s heard Holocaust jokes on the bus, and she’s still attempting to ignore a “Heil Hitler” April Fool’s Day “joke” she was snapchatted this year.
Senior Sarah Milgrim, who is also Jewish, hasn’t come in contact with a lot of what Martasin hears. Despite this, she’s still come across the occasional Holocaust joke, and her requests to celebrate Hanukkah — not Christmas — have been ignored by friends before. But she, and all who practice Judaism, live with the fact that their religion has been persecuted time and again through its centuries of existence.
These small reminders of historic injustices to East’s Jewish population were amplified when Shawnee Mission South students vandalized a shed at East in late February with anti-Semitic symbols — three swastikas — and the statement “East loves Nazis.”
The shock and sadness that perpetrated the following Jewish Student Union (JSU) meeting led to the creation of the event “United Against Hate: Past, Present, and Prevention” on April 25 at East, which will raise awareness about ending anti-Semitism.
“It was time to really step up to the plate, put ourselves out there, make us known,” Martasin, the JSU’s head of marketing, said. “Our reaction was more shocked and hurt and surprised that someone would actually do this. But in sad reality, we probably expected this, because stuff like this does happen a lot.”
The smashing of Jewish headstones as close as St. Louis and Philadelphia in February have shown that anti-Semitic acts of aggression are not over in the United States. After seeing the vandalism, Milgrim was reminded of the increased security at her synagogue after the shooting at the Jewish Community Center three years ago, and how she now needs to scan an ID card just to enter. Anti-Semitic vandalism at East fits into a larger picture, according to Milgrim.
East parent Steve Cole, a son of a Holocaust survivor, will be one of two speakers at the event.
“I do believe that in our culture, particularly now, there is a predisposition to divide and conquer and find differences in people,” Cole said. “And Jews are very wary of such a circumstance, because of the events of Nazi Germany.”
Cole will tell the story of his mother, Ilsa, who grew up Jewish in Geilenkirchen, Germany. In 1938, she fled with her fiancee to the United States when Germany began to turn against Jews. In 1941, when the United States went to war against the Axis powers, Cole’s parents lost track of their own parents. They later found out that their parents had been killed in Poland in concentration camps.
This story, and Cole himself, will bring a physical connection to the Holocaust that he believes more recent generations need.
“I believe that as time passes, a generation that follows another, doesn’t know the lessons of the previous generation,” Cole said. “So, if you would have presented a swastika to your grandfather’s generation who fought World War II, and anyone in the United States, everyone — I am sorry to paint with that big of a brush — but everyone would have said that is a symbol of evil and the enemy. Today, some of that has been forgotten as people went on.”
Cole’s daughter, senior Lauren Cole, agrees that there is a numbness towards anti-semitic symbols like the swastika. English teacher Samantha Feinberg is Jewish and has helped put on previous diversity and inclusion events, including this upcoming event. She’s not sure if the vandalism itself was purposely anti-Semitic or done out of pure ignorance.
“I don’t even know at this point if people, when they see a swastika, even know what they’re doing,” Feinberg said. “What it stands for. If they even know where it came from.”
Feinberg hopes the event will account for three things: first, it will function as a response to the vandalism that occurred in February, knowing that East students witnessed it. Secondly, it will dissolve the misconception that may exist in the community that East students were actually the perpetrators of the vandalism. Third is the creation of a dialogue.
“Say you toss the first two reasons, what you’re left with is the society that could probably use a good deal of reminders of historical injustices, of all sorts,” Feinberg said.
Cole hopes that his presentation will assist the community in prevention of future acts of hate.
“The important phrase to get across often for us is [just] because this unbelievable extermination of half of the world’s Jewish population [happened once] does not mean it cannot happen again,” Cole said. “Or that it can’t happen to other people, equally as victimized. So part of my message has to do, not with uniquely the Jewish experience, but any minority who is oppressed and who is victimized.”