Shoah exhibit reminds FBI of its vow to be vigilant

Bagels, cream cheese and yarmulkes may not be what one expects to see beyond the security at San Francisco's FBI headquarters, but that was the scene on March 2, at the opening ceremony of an exhibit of Holocaust photos.

"Why would the FBI take on a project like this?" Robert E. Walsh, the agent in charge of the San Francisco field division office, said to the invited audience of 75.

The answer, he said, has to do with hate crimes, the FBI's duty to fight them and what could happen if the agency failed at that task. "Law enforcement officers in a democracy have an obligation to protect civil and human rights as a first priority," the agent said.

The traveling exhibit, which remained in the FBI offices for a couple of weeks before being moved to the Los Angeles offices, is for the benefit of the agents and other law enforcement officials, to show them what could happen if they are not vigilant.

Walsh, in his address, described a photo hanging in FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., depicting a Nazi soldier taking a young boy to a prison camp while a police officer looks on. Passivity such as this, he said, contributed to the Holocaust.

Walsh also discussed the importance of personalizing and remembering the victims.

"Who were they? What were their names, especially the children? No one wrote obituaries for them," said Walsh. "What would the world be like if we had those millions here today? I want to assure you, others will carry your torch."

The exhibit, created by the Anti-Defamation League, is a pictorial history of the Holocaust starting with the rise of Nazism and ending with the establishment of the state of Israel.

Among the 20 photos in the exhibit were shots that depicted death camps, the yellow Star of David that Jews were required to wear, Adolf Hitler marching in a May Day parade, the destruction of Jewish-owned businesses and the deportation of Jews. The final pictures portray the liberation, Nuremberg trials and Jews arriving in Palestine.

The audience at the exhibit's opening was a mixture of people: Holocaust survivors, children of survivors, members of the Anti-Defamation League, law enforcement officials and FBI agents.

"Democracy is recreated every generation," said speaker Alan Bersin, U.S. attorney for the southern district of California. "We must teach our children there is evil in the world that has to be fought and guarded against."

Bersin also talked about the dangers of complacency and of assuming that what happened in Nazi Germany could not happen here. "It won't happen here only if we understand it could happen here," he said.

Another speaker was Michael Berenbaum, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and current president of Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. He recalled taking FBI Director William Freeh on a tour of the Holocaust Museum.

"He came for an hour and stayed for a day," Berenbaum said, adding that Freeh closely observed everything he saw and asked Berenbaum to "teach me what you can teach me."

Looking at the Holocaust from a historical perspective, Berenbaum called the transformation of ordinary German citizens into participants in mass killing a "slippery slope" that was done under the color of law.

"The legal system was the instrumentality of destruction," said Berenbaum. He explained how the first laws simply defined who a Jew was, but then later laws resulted in the expropriation of Jewish-owned property and businesses and finally mass extermination.

"No laws were broken."

The final speaker was Holocaust survivor Ernie Hollander of Oakland. He talked about seeing most of his family killed, the death march to Dachau and being freed by a unit of Japanese Americans. Of his eight brothers and sisters, he knew of only one brother and a sister who survived. He told of having to wait five years to emigrate to the United States because of quotas.

For many years, he didn't talk about his Holocaust experience.

"One day I woke up and saw the hate crimes and prejudice [around me]," said Hollander. He knew then that he could be silent no longer.

Last year, Hollander spoke at 257 schools. He's also appeared on television. Because of his television appearance, he was reunited with another brother living in Yugoslavia who Hollander thought had been killed in the war.

Hollander closed with a variation on Martin Niemoller's oft-repeated statement: In Germany, first they came for the communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Catholic. Then they came for me.

"I wanted to speak out, but there was no one left to listen," said Hollander.