Nazis? Japanese internment? Distorting history can be harmful

Moments after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Illinois' Stay at Home order on March 20, I saw the first meme: "If Anne Frank could hide in an attic for two years, you can stay home for a few weeks." Here it comes, I thought: the latest flood of comparisons between current events and the Holocaust.

Soon after, the comparisons escalated, with political figures being called Nazis and their decisions akin to fascism. Individuals protesting the ongoing closures carry signs depicting Gov. JB Pritzker with a Hitler-esque moustache, emblazoned with swastikas.

The false comparisons are not limited to Holocaust history, however. Recently and not for the first time, in arguments related to overturning Wisconsin's Stay at Home order, Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley invoked the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. At best, these false equivalencies demonstrate a gross lack of historical understanding.

More than that, comparisons like these are harmful, because they distort the true history and meaning of these events without truly addressing the contemporary issues.

The first time I saw the Anne Frank meme, I thought immediately of my friend, Aaron Elster. Aaron, who passed away in 2018, spent two years in an attic, hiding from the Nazis and their collaborators in German-occupied Poland. Just 10 years old, Aaron was completely alone, without heat, plumbing, or electricity, afraid to make noise for fear of being discovered and murdered.

I looked around the apartment where I would spend Stay at Home; where, like Aaron, I would be alone for an unknown length of time.

But that's where the similarities end. I have ingredients for baking, a comfy couch and high speed internet with every streaming video service I could possibly want. I can open windows, video chat with friends and family and go outside for a walk or a run. I am safe here.

I imagined Aaron's response to the idea that my circumstances for Stay at Home were somehow comparable to his time in the attic or to the conditions in the so-called "War Relocation Centers" where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated because of their ethnicity. As with many of Aaron's more colorful comments, it's not suitable for publication.

One reason it is so important to learn about history is in order to learn from it. What lessons can we take from the past to help us make better choices in the present?

The lessons of the Holocaust show us unequivocally that our choices have consequences for others, both positive and negative. They further show us the importance of leading with empathy and celebrating our shared humanity. This pandemic and the accompanying restrictions in Illinois and throughout the country, impact every one of us, in different ways. For the luckiest, the impact is largely one of inconvenience. For others, the effects are far more serious, financially and medically.

But to truly understand these difficult, unprecedented circumstances, we need to examine and understand them as they are, not through a distorted lens of misrepresented history. There will continue to be tough decisions ahead.

People will continue to suffer and that suffering will not be distributed equally. It presents an opportunity, however: To remember and prioritize our shared humanity and to be Upstanders who seek to act with empathy in the best interests of all.

Illinois Holocaust Museum, dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and teaching universal lessons that combat prejudice, hatred and indifference, is located less than 150 miles from the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. When we are again able to welcome visitors, we invite Justice Bradley and her colleagues to take a drive south of the border to learn more about Aaron, Anne and many others who have been persecuted and had their freedoms - and in some cases their lives - taken by Hitler and the Nazis' dictatorial government. We look forward to discussing these events and individuals and to exploring the lessons we can take from history to guide us in the challenging days ahead -without false equivalencies.

• Amanda Friedeman is assistant director of education at Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.

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