Mr. Rolf Gompertz was born in Krefeld, Germany, on December 29, 1927. During his childhood, he was faced with a harsh reality that being Jewish has made it very difficult for his family to have a normal life in Germany. Hitler had started a campaign to demonize the Jews and to spread the slogan that “Jews are our misfortune!” The Nazis banned and burned books, including Rolf’s family book, any book written by a Jew or about a Jew, and any book considered incompatible with the Nazi ideology. Soon Rolf could not socialize and play with his non-Jewish friends, and things got worse. Then on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht—“Crystal Night” or the “Night of Broken Glass”–started against the Jews all over Germany and Austria. “Half a dozen Nazis, armed with rifles, stormed into our house and up the stairs in the middle of the night, “said Rolf. “They wanted to lock is into the kitchen but my mother stopped them. ‘No! No!’ she shouted. ‘We won’t be locked up!’ We ran away from them, through the rooms. When my father got to his desk, he tore open a drawer, pulled out his Iron Cross, a Medal he had received for serving in the German Army during World War I, faced the Nazi leader, held up the Iron Cross and shouted, ‘Is this the thanks I get for having served the Fatherland?’ The two stood face to face for what seemed like an eternity. Then the Nazi turned, signaled his men, led them down the stairs and out of the house, without breaking one dish. Later, others came to take my father to a concentration camp, along with other Jewish men of the city. He was at the doctor’s. They never came back for him, and let him go. 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, synagogues were burned, 2500 Jews were killed in the camps.” Rolf was fortunate to come to America, arriving June 11, 1939. He was happy to have survived, but sad that millions didn’t. Rolf lost half of his family in Auschwitz and other death camps. In America, Rolf went to school and received a BA and MA in English literature, served in the United States Army, worked as a newspaper editor and media relations practitioner, taught at a university, and published 5 books dealing with love. In 1987, he and other Jews from Krefeld were invited back by the city and church groups. Half of the city’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Rolf went back three times and delivered speeches, including one on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, raising awareness about human rights and civil liberties, in hopes that such crimes never happen again.
Q. You are a Holocaust survivor and you know people who have lost their lives in the Holocaust. How did you feel when you heard Ahmadinejad deny Holocaust ever happened?
I was outraged. I found Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust cruel and obscene.
I found that history was being repeated again. Mr. Ahmadinejad had no historical awareness or education, and yet one day he decided to deny the Holocaust to please a few radical groups and increase his popularity within the Arab countries. The Jewish community and especially those who have gone through so much during WW II were outraged. We especially did not expect this from the Iranian president, whose responsibility is to improve his country’s relations with the world and encourage peace. He is a representative of a country, and Iran is a great country with diverse and peace-loving people. How could he misrepresent his people like that? Instead of sympathizing with the victims, he chose to use this as a political strategy. Denying the Holocaust has increased the pain of the victims and those who care about humanity around the world.
Q. Holocaust is not the first genocide in history, but a special attention is given to it. Can you tell us why?
There have been other murderous regimes in the world. But what sets this genocide apart, from all the others, past and present, was not only because it was aimed at a whole people – the Jewish people – but that it was conducted by a highly civilized country that prided itself on its culture and that it was carried out systematically using the most advanced, modern methods and technology. More importantly, this was a one-sided genocide based on ethnicity and religion. Jews in Germany were not an enemy in the battlefield, nor did they take arms against German soldiers. Therefore the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate them has been significant.
Q. Why do you think it is important that the people in the world and in Iran understand the truth about the Holocaust?
I hope they do. Of course years of propaganda and lack of access to independent books and media can hinder such knowledge. But lack of societal understanding can cause history to repeat itself. If the level of awareness is high, then such catastrophic events will not find support in the society. This is not only about the Jews, but about other ethnicities and minorities. Also, it is very important that people know not only that the Holocaust happened but how it happened, through tyrannical, power-mad leaders, who seduced the people of Germany with false promises and betrayed them through lies, and because the people, out of their personal and collective desperation, wanted to believe the false promises and the lies.
Q. The Iranian regime makes an organized effort to spread hatred toward the Jewish minority. It destroys their holy places, controls the subjects of study and the schools for the kids, and prevents them from having government jobs and entering good schools. These and other organized persecutions have resulted in massive immigration. These are non-violent acts but can they end up in something catastrophic as the Holocaust? Or you think spreading awareness has been successful in curbing hatred? What is the result of spreading hatred in the society?
I disagree that these are “non-violent” acts. Attempting to or destroying holy places is a violent act. Denial of educational, occupational, and professional rights limiting economic and intellectual freedoms are violent economic and spiritual acts. The famous German writer and poet, Heinrich Heine, saw all this coming in Germany. He predicted the Nazi Holocaust 100 years in advance. He declared, “They that start by burning books will end by burning men.” — Heirnich Heine(1707-1856), from his play “Almansor”. “Heinrich Heine predicted the Nazi Holocaust” © 1999 by Hugo S. Cunningham
When the world can witness events such as the denial of the Holocaust, then you can not say that these atrocities will not happen again. Spreading hatred, even the non-violent type, will eventually lead to violence, even if it is only a word. There is a thin line between words and actions.
Q. Iranian Jews are not able to tell about the atrocities or violation of their rights. In such situations, what is the role of human rights organizations and how can they help?
If you are a human rights activist or organization and you know that the Iranian Jews are under pressure are persecution, then do your humanitarian duty to make contact and create a bilateral relationship with them and stand on their side to resolve their issues. Raising awareness, spreading the news, and non-violent actions will help them and will improve the situation of the minorities in Iran.
November 9, 2008, the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. I wrote and said at the time: “Isn’t this ancient history? I wish to God it were!”
But genocides are still with us, all over the world, threats to and violations of human rights and civil liberties are still with us, here, and all over the world. Jews, too, are targeted again, In vile and shameless ways, for hatred, defamation, and death.
We must speak up, speak out, and act. This was a lesson learned the hard way by Martin Niemoeller.*
He was a famous German U-boat commander, a hero of World War I, an ardent admirer and follower of Hitler in the 1920’s, Niemoeller became a Protestant pastor but Hitler had great plans for him.
In 1933, Hitler came to power. By 1934, Pastor Niemoeller realized the big mistake he had made in supporting Hitler. By then, he started to preach against him and the Nazis. By 1937, Hitler had had enough. He had Niemoeller arrested, tried for “Abuse of the pulpit,” and “crimes against the state,” and sent to concentration camps, one after the other. Niemoeller survived.
After the war, whenever he spoke of these matters, he said:
“They came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak out, Because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the social democrats, and I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a social democrat. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and, by that time, no one was left to speak out.”
Niemoeller has given us the answer. We must speak up, speak out, and act, in whatever ways we can, small or large. We must speak up against genocide, for human rights and civil liberties, especially on behalf of individuals and groups who are different from us. We must do so for their sake, and we must do so ultimately for the sake of our own souls.
Q. Do you have a message for the Iranian people and activists?
My message to the Iranian people is that please try to overcome the hardships imposed on you by this regime, and increase awareness about human rights and the rights of the minorities living in Iran. Study history to learn the importance of peace, and become an example for other nations and countries in the Middle East. Your great history and glorious civilization makes you a unique and special nation and you can rise above the hardships by advancing in the culture of tolerance and peace. I see a bright future for Iran and its wonderful people.
I end with this verse of Torah:
Praised are you, O Lord, our God,
God of the universe, who has kept us in life,
And enabled us to reach this time!
Interviws by Poya Jahandar