Mutual respect key to better world, says Holocaust survivor

Having experienced the world at its worst, Leo Fettman has made it his life mission to make it better-and to recruit as much help as he can along the way.

Fettman, a survivor of the Holocaust during World War II, brought his cause to Hillsboro last Thursday. He urged those attending Tabor College’s Learning in Retirement program to defuse hate by respecting people who may be different than them.

“We must work together to make this world a better world,” he told the crowd that filled the lobby of the Wohlgemuth Music Education Center. “It’s not up to the president. It’s up to us, and I cannot do it by myself. I need your help.”

Fettman used humor and audience involvement both to describe his world view as a person of Jewish faith as well as challenge his audience to fight the prejudice and hate that continue to drive wedges between people-even people who proclaim faith in God.

“We know so little about other faiths, and we think any other religion is a bad one,” he said. “If I were to tell you the Jewish religion is the only one, I would be a liar. Each one has values, different values. They are called human values.”

At the heart of his presentation was his account of his Holocaust experiences during World War II. He described how he and thousands of fellow Jews from Hungary were taken from their homes in 1944 and sent to the death camp in Auschwitz.

He said he witnessed his parents and several other family members entering the gas chamber, and described how the Nazis forced him to work in the crematorium that incinerated thousands of his fellow Jews.

Like all hatred, Fettman said the Nazis’ hatred of Jews that fueled the Holocaust was based in ignorance.

“In Europe, church leaders encouraged hatred-especially Catholics,” he said. “Easter and Christmas, when they went to church, we had to board our windows because when they came home from church, they broke all the windows. This was the life we lived in Hungary.

“Thank God, it’s not that way anymore,” he added. “It’s different today.”

But anti-Semitism isn’t extinguished. Fettman said he experienced that again only a few weeks ago while speaking in a small community. Several area Christian clergy boycotted the meeting .

“We are not going to listen to a Jew,” Fettman was told.

“What is the difference between Jews and non-Jews, as far as God is concerned?” he asked. “I, as a Jew, worship God directly.

“When you are a Christian, you feel differently. You also worship the same God, but you start someplace in the middle and you pick up Jesus Christ and together you go to the same God. Because the directions are different, that’s no reason for hatred.

Fettman said hatred is learned, not inherited genetically.

“People are not born to be haters,” he said. “We are taught in our homes to hate. A child does not see color. A child does not see religion. A child sees another child. Maybe it’s time that we learn from a child.”

Fettman said his sense of humor kept him alive during and after the Holocaust, and he used it frequently both to put his audience at ease and to make his points.

“People sometimes ask me, ‘How can you tell these stories (of the Holocaust) and smile and tell a joke?” he said. “If I would tell you people the way I feel, you would walk out.”

Fettman emphasized he blames Nazis, not Germans, for the hatred that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews.

“I don’t want you to feel bad for what happened,” he told his audience, many of whom had a German cultural heritage. “You are not responsible. I speak about Nazis, not about Germans.”

Fettman said he cannot forgive the atrocities the Nazis committed.

“Even God doesn’t forgive everything,” he said in response to a question from the audience. “There are three things God will not forgive us: murder, denying God’s existence, and incest.

“Because God does not forgive everything, I cannot forgive,” he added. “Maybe the time will come when I can forgive. But I can only forgive what they did to me. No way whatsoever can I forgive them for what they did to my parents. They have to ask my parents, and they are no longer alive.”

Fettman, a rabbi and cantor, worked most recently as a teacher and chaplain in Omaha, Neb. Now retired, he travels the country speaking about his experiences, which he recorded in a book, Shoah: Journey from the Ashes.

“I’m trying to create a beautiful human orchestra-Jew and non-Jew, black and white, you name it,” he said. “But I cannot do it alone. I am but one instrument. I’m a Jew. You have to bring your instrument in. We can make this world a better world.”

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