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What would you do, Holocaust survivor asks crowd at Minnesota West in Worthington

“What would you do?” Amram asked. “And I keep having the fear that you wouldn’t do anything, and it would be like Germany.”

Fred Amram, Holocaust survivor and former professor at the University of Minnesota, gives a speech to a full house at the Fine Arts Theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Fred Amram, Holocaust survivor and former professor at the University of Minnesota, gives a speech to a full house at the Fine Arts Theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
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WORTHINGTON — Genocide doesn’t begin with armed men dragging people from their homes, but with bullying, guest speaker Fred Amram told his audience of students, teachers and community members Wednesday at Minnesota West Community & Technical College.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Fred Amram faced horrors growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany. He witnessed the national wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks known as Kristallnacht and the Gestapo raiding his home; he watched British bombers from his balcony...

As a Holocaust survivor who distinctly recalls the slow build toward the Nazis’ systematic murder of 6 million Jews, Amram would know. Through a child’s eyes, he saw political bullying evolve into separation, before growing into the outright dehumanization that allowed the atrocities to begin.

“What would you do? What would you do, and I ask that very seriously,” said Amram, encouraging people to be upstanders and not bystanders when bullying, racism and intolerance occur around them.

The path to genocide

Amram, a former University of Minnesota professor, was born in Hanover, Germany, in September 1933, not that long after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany that January. Even by that point, however, the Jewish hospital had been shut down and Jewish mothers were not accepted at the public hospital, so Amram was born in a Christian infants’ home, “where some nuns decided they were going to stand up to Hitler and say ‘No. No, you can’t discriminate against the Jews like that.’”

After that, Hitler asked, but did not demand, that German people boycott all Jewish-owned stores, with police writing “Jew” on the shop windows so everyone knew which ones they were.

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People voluntarily complied, influenced by all the Nazi propaganda about Jews being bad, Amram said.

Fred Amram as a young child.
Fred Amram, shown as a small child.
Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

He still remembers going to a park near his house as a child, along with his mother, and finding one day that a park bench had been painted with the words “Only for Jews.” On returning to the park after that, the two found that all the other park benches had words too: “Only for Aryans.”

Soon, more signs popped up in Amram’s favorite park, starting with “Jews are unwanted here,” and the following year, the little boy wasn’t allowed to go into the park at all.

“So you see, it happened step by step by step,” he said. “They get away with closing the hospital. They get away with giving us only one bench. And then they say ‘OK, no benches, no parks.’ And nobody cared. And nobody cared.”

It did happen here

Throughout his presentation, Amram asked the audience, both those in the auditorium in Worthington and the 70-plus people listening online, what they would do.

He pointed out that there really were options, including sitting on the “wrong” bench or inviting others onto your “own” bench, picketing or protesting.

“Because what you do matters. It could’ve changed,” he said.

Amram said that when he came to America, segregation was still being enforced, and instead of “Only Aryans,” American signs said “Whites only,” keeping white and black people separated just as Jews had been separated out in Germany.

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“What would you do?” Amram asked. “And I keep having the fear that you wouldn’t do anything, and it would be like Germany.”

But he pointed out that things did get better in the U.S., step by step, as many black people and some others as well joined together to protest segregation and demand change.

Fred Amram, an 85-year-old former University of Minnesota professor who fled Germany with his parents as a child, will be re-naturalized as a German citizen Tuesday. Amram's family and other Jews were stripped of their ciitizenship in Nazi Germany in 1935. Amram is holding his cat Medele. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Fred Amram, an 85-year-old former University of Minnesota professor who fled Germany with his parents as a child, used this picture of himself with his cat, Medele, during his presentation.
Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed in Germany, stripping citizenship from Jews and forbidding intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. They also prohibited Jews from working for the civil service.

Amram pointed out that the news was printed in many U.S. newspapers at the time.

“And everybody knew. Nobody cared. And nobody in Germany cared, folks just went along with it,” he said.

Eventually Jews were forced to wear the star of David to identify themselves.

“And the Nazis referred to Jews as cockroaches,” Amram said. “And you know, you can step on cockroaches.”

In November 1938 came Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” when the Nazis encouraged citizens to burn down synagogues, beat up Jews and loot their businesses, often with the help of the police.

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Then they started hauling people away.

Refugees

Amram showed pictures of Auschwitz, its gas chamber and crematorium, where the bodies of Nazi victims were burned, and then showed photos of the dead, this time people who had been killed in the Rwandan genocide. “The only thing different is the color of the skin,” he said.

He also showed a picture of his cousin, little Aaltje Wurms, born Aug. 21, 1939, who was killed in Auschwitz at age 3 1/2.

Fred Amram, Holocaust survivor, talks about the precursors to genocide, and how political bullying can slide into separation, dehumanization and atrocities, during a speech at the Fine Arts Theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Fred Amram, Holocaust survivor, talks about the precursors to genocide, and how political bullying can slide into separation, dehumanization and atrocities, during a speech at the Fine Arts Theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Tim Middagh/The Globe
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“I’m going to end here with just one more example,” Amram said, clicking forward to another picture. “This is a sign in Poland today. Today. ‘LGBT-free zone.’ This is today. What do we do today? Do we care?”

Following his presentation, Amram signed copies of his book, “We’re in America Now: A Survivor’s Stories,” and his collaboration with his wife, Sandra Brick, “Lest We Forget: A Visual Memoir.”

He also answered questions from the audience, explaining how he and his parents had escaped the Holocaust.

Prior to Kristallnacht, Amram explained, it was relatively easy to leave Germany because Hitler wanted the Jews to get out. The problem was finding a place to go.

“You couldn’t get anywhere. No other country would accept you,” Amram said. “For example, the United States had a quota of 27,000 Germans, Jewish or otherwise. And that’s a drop in the bucket.”

He pointed out that the U.S. could have changed the quotas, could have taken in more Jewish refugees, but chose not to.

Amram and his parents were three of the 27,000 people from Germany who were allowed into the U.S. the year they left.

“You see, that was just luck,” he said.

A 1999 graduate of Jackson County Central and a 2003 graduate of Augsburg College, Kari Lucin started writing for newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota in 2006. During her time as a reporter, she covered beats including education, watershed, county and agriculture, and frequently wrote about health and science. She has also served as an online content coordinator and an engagement specialist at various Forum Communications properties. She was a marketing assistant at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville for two years, where she did design work in addition to writing and social media management.

Lucin is currently a community editor with the Globe of Worthington.

Email: klucin@dglobe.com
Phone: (507) 376-7319
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