For its annual Sadie B. Feldman Family Lecture on Jan. 30, the Jewish Museum of Maryland will present a talk by award-winning author Jack Sacco on his book, “Where the Birds Never Sing: The True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau” (HarperCollins).
A 2004 nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, “Where the Birds Never Sing” tells the story of Sacco’s late father, Joe, who was among the U.S. troops to liberate the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau.
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Jack Sacco lives in the Los Angeles area and is the author of “Above the Treetops,” a 2012 biography of writer William Faulkner.
Sacco’s appearance at the JMM, 15 Lloyd St. in East Baltimore, is presented in partnership with the Baltimore Jewish Council.
Jmore: What was it like growing up with a father who had the wartime experiences described in your book?
Sacco: It was always a great adventure to hear my father tell me his stories from the war. He was very open about sharing his experiences with me. He not only had stories, he had medals and swords and other memorabilia, which was incredible for me to see as a 12-year-old.
However, in some way, I feel as though I took his accomplishments for granted. It’s almost as if I assumed that everyone’s father was present for Gen. George Patton’s famous speech just before D-Day, had landed at Omaha Beach, had fought through the Battle of the Bulge and had liberated a concentration camp.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I came to understand the true magnitude of what my father and his buddies had achieved.
Do Dachau and the Holocaust still matter?
They matter because unless we remain vigilant, an atrocity like the Holocaust can be repeated. Throughout history, mankind has risen to great heights but has also descended to unimaginable depths. The Holocaust will always rank as one of the — if not the — lowest of all.
We must always stand guard against man’s cruelty to his fellow man, and we must remain resolute that it must never happen again. This can only take place if we are willing to bear witness to our history, remember it soberly and learn the proper lessons from it.
What’s your response to Elie Wiesel’s famous statement, “The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference.”
I completely agree with Elie Wiesel. Indifference is the garden in which evil can grow unchecked and unchallenged. Throughout history, people have always feared and even hated others. But while love can and should provide a counterbalance to that hate, it is indifference that fuels the fires that threaten our humanity. As long as there is indifference in the world, evil will flourish.
What can be done about the proliferation of anti-Semitism today?
Proper education is one of the most important components in fighting anti-Semitism. We are constantly bombarded with untruths regarding history, such as the Holocaust. Some are borne of ignorance, while others are specifically designed to inflame hatred and division.
A recent Claims Conference survey cited by the New York Times revealed that an alarming number of young people have grave misconceptions about the Holocaust and what actually happened. For example, according to this Claims Conference survey, “There were over 40,000 camps and ghettos during the Holocaust, [but] 49 percent of millennials cannot name a single one.” Such lack of education for our youth provides a perfect breeding ground for the indifference that can threaten our future.
President Trump was heavily criticized in 2017 after equating neo-Nazis with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va. Your feelings?
As the son of a liberator of a concentration camp, I can say without equivocation that Nazis – neo- or otherwise — are not “good people.” One who believes in and acts in accord with the tenets of Nazism will necessarily be motivated by the teachings of Hitler, teachings that have been historically proven not simply to inspire indifference toward one’s fellow man but to inspire hatred and destruction. My father joined millions of other young Americans to fight a world war because of Nazism. There is nothing good about being a Nazi.
What are some of the best ways to get people to care about people who are different?
Since indifference can dwell within each of us, we are all capable of marginalizing others. But I’ve often noticed that we never seem to marginalize ourselves. It’s always someone else. Perhaps they’re the “wrong” religion or race or political party, or maybe they just cheer for the wrong sports team. For whatever the reason, we can often find a rationality that will justify our predispositions.
Of course, parental attitudes are a major influence on us growing up. And once again, education — both in the classroom and by way of exposure through travel — is a key component in helping us understand that though different we may be, we are all bound by a common humanity, a common thirst for understanding and love and a common desire to live on this planet in peace.
In my opinion, it is not enough to simply insist that we tolerate each other. Tolerance can wear thin. I believe that we must actively educate ourselves and our children about the thread that binds us all throughout history. And we must actively learn from the mistakes of the past, with a full understanding that we are indeed capable of repeating those mistakes.
For information, visit jewishmuseummd.org.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.