‘We have to be here fighting’: Deborah Lipstadt opens up on her Poland-Germany trip with Douglas Emhoff

World News

BERLIN (JTA) — Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff made headlines late last month during a trip to Europe, where he met with other foreign leaders working to combat antisemitism and returned to his ancestors’ town in Poland.

But the trip was originally Deborah Lipstadt’s mission.

The historian, an authority on Holocaust issues and now the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, had planned to go to Krakow and Berlin on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration. The trip included a visit to the memorial and museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 78th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation by Soviet troops and, in Berlin, a meeting with special envoys and coordinators who, like Lipstadt, are charged with the task of countering hatred against Jews. 

The itinerary fit perfectly with Emhoff’s own anti-antisemitism campaign, so he asked Lipstadt late last year if he could come along.

As she reflected in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after returning home, Emhoff was not the only one to get emotional on the trip.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

JTA: You met with special envoys on antisemitism from other countries, as you and Emhoff continue to work on a national plan to fight antisemitism at home. Did any concrete policy suggestions come out of those meetings?

DL: The meeting with the special envoys on antisemitism now is the third meeting we have had together. 

But I think it was very important to send the message that we are all government appointees, and we speak government to government. So we have already gotten into that rhythm, and it was a very useful meeting. It was also a useful meeting because there were people there from the White House, from my staff, who are involved in this interagency process, and they got to hear from the people who are composing, writing, who have written national plans. And I think that was very helpful. So it was one of the most productive meetings. 

You also attended an interfaith meeting with Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim participants, hosted by the Central Council of Jews in Germany in Berlin. What came out of that?

That actually went very well. The groups tended to talk about what they do together. …One of the things I urged the group, and it may have been bringing coals to Newcastle, but it is a sort of a new effort on their part… is that [talking about things that affect multiple faiths] is a good way of building relations. For instance, [my office had] a meeting in October, convened by the EU but with very strong support from the State Department, from my office, on ritual slaughter. Which of course affects both Jews and Muslims, kashrut and halal. So here is a tachles [goal], a brass tacks area which we could work on together. And that was an excellent meeting, a whole day at the EU.

What do you see as the main challenges in fighting antisemitism and hate today?

You know, some people say this is just like the 1930s. It is not. Back then, you had government-sponsored antisemitism. Whether it was Germany, whether it was other countries, even in the United States. We didn’t have government sponsored antisemitism, but there was a failure of the [U.S.] government [to respond].

On Monday morning, we were sitting in Topography of Terror [Berlin’s museum and archive on the history of the Gestapo], and it was government officials discussing “how do we fight antisemitism?” And everybody around that table is paid by the government. They are government officials, officially appointed. That’s a big difference. That is a humongous difference. That is a sea change. 

And then we had the second gentleman there who could easily have said, “We came into office, we put a mezuzah up at our residence. We had a Chanukah party, a Rosh Hashanah party, we had a seder…” [Instead, it] is really clear that he has taken to this issue. He has really said it a number of times… and his wife [Vice President Kamala Harris] says, “He didn’t find this issue. This issue found him.”

RELATED: We’re visiting Auschwitz because the fight against antisemitism didn’t end with liberation

On the first day I met him, which was before I was sworn into office, he said he wanted to meet me and I spent some time with him. He said, “I want to work with you.” And then in October, we had a sukkah event at Blair House [the state guest house], where the State Department brought a sukkah, and we invited ambassadors and deputy chiefs of mission from Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries. So sitting around the table were the Israeli ambassador, the Turkish ambassador, the Pakistan ambassador, the deputy chief of mission from Qatar, the deputy chief of mission from Saudi Arabia… And [the Second Gentleman] and I were standing in the kitchen waiting to be escorted into the room, when people took their seats. And he said to me, “Deborah, where are you traveling, where are you going?” I said “Well, in January I am going to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the 27th.” And he said “I’m in.” And that’s how it happened.

You have been to Auschwitz many times…

Dozens of times, I can’t keep count. You know I have been many times, but I work very hard so that it never becomes de rigeur. That it becomes “min haminyan” as you would say in Hebrew. … All you have to do is remind yourself of what happened there. And so it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or your 15th time. If you are cognizant of what happened there, it sits with you.

…When I go to Auschwitz, especially when it was around my trial [after being sued by British writer David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier], I had to look at things in a very forensic way, you know: How do we prove this, how do we show that. And that of course sits with me still. But I was well aware that this was [Emhoff’s] first time and what an emotional impact this was having on him. … The thing that always strikes me about Auschwitz, the thing that you hear resounding in your ears in a thunderous way, is the silence. The absence. The little kid that would have worn the shoes that you saw in the display. The people who wore the eyeglasses. The men who shaved with that shaving stuff. 

So that is always there. And it hits me at moments and then I become the historian. Analyzing. But it was very powerful, and what was also powerful was, in a way, though this seems counterintuitive, going to Poland first, which was just laden with emotion, especially for him, he went to the town where his family comes from, and got a lot of information. And then going to Germany. One would have thought, go to Germany first and then go to Poland, but in a way the emotional part became the backdrop for the business meetings in Germany. 

[Emhoff] very kindly at one point described me as his mentor. Well, if I am his mentor, he is an A1 student. He is really intent on showing not just his passion about the issue but in learning about the issue. He is an accomplished lawyer, an experienced lawyer, and he knows that feeling is not enough, you’ve got to have information, and he gathered that every place he went.

Do you really have the feeling that antisemitism is on the rise or is it just more acceptable to express it?

I think both. I am not out there crunching the numbers statistically, but certainly it is more acceptable. Certainly, it is increasingly normalized. Whether it’s among comedians, whether it is articles in the newspaper, whether it is at demonstrations, it is increasingly normal. And even becomes fodder for entertainers. So whether those same people felt the same before and didn’t say anything or they now suddenly feel that, I don’t know. But many people who might otherwise have been more reticent about expressing certain things previously seem to feel freer to say antisemitic things now. 

If antisemitism keeps coming back, what gives you hope? 

First of all, what gives me hope, what gives me strength, is I know what I am fighting for, I am not just fighting against. I have a very strong sense of my Jewish identity, I have a very strong sense of who I am, Jewishly. I am lucky, I had a great education, etc. 

Earlier this year, I guess it was September, the president did a phone call, it was his practice during the vice presidency, before Rosh Hashanah, or between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to do a phone call with — this time I think it was 1,200 rabbis. And I came along after he spoke with them to answer questions. And one of the questions was what gives me joy and what gives me strength. And what I said to the rabbis was that I never want to become a “because of antisemitism Jew.” Driving me out of the woodwork because everyone dislikes me, hates me, or wants to harm me. Not everyone — but there are people who want to harm me. 

On Monday when I was at all those meetings [in Berlin], it was Jan. 30, 90 years after Hitler came to power, right there where we were standing. Not far from there people were marching in the streets with tiki torches! Championing among other things “death to the Jews.”

And here we were, back: Yes, the good news is here we are back, openly talking about fighting [antisemitism], here we are back, government officials tasked with fighting it, someone at the ambassadorial level from my country, the second gentleman, anxious to help in this effort, but nonetheless we were back there fighting. So on one hand, you can say, “Great, we have the special envoy, great we have the second gentleman who was so open to taking this on. This is unbelievable.” But we are here fighting. We have to be here fighting.

What was your most memorable experience from the recent trip?

On Saturday night [in Poland], one of the members of the White House staff that was with us after Shabbos had hired a car to go to the little village, shtetl, whatever, that her family came from. She wanted to go to the cemetery to see if she could find any names. Now the chances of her finding the names, in the daylight, when it is 70 degrees out and comfortable [would be hard enough]. Here it was below freezing, snow was falling, the ground was icy, and it was pitch black. We were with a genealogist, but the cemetery was locked. So we thought we would have to climb the fences. I thought, “Oh my God, we are going to have an international incident!” But our driver got the key to the cemetery from the people across the street, and I asked, “How did you know?” And he said, “The people across the street always have the key.”

So we didn’t have to break in. She wanted to say a prayer, and she was totally capable of saying the prayer herself but obviously she was deeply moved, and she asked me to recite the “El Maleh Rachamim” [prayer for the soul of a person who has died] for her. And when I stopped, she gave all the names of the people, many of whom were buried there but we couldn’t find the exact places. And then I said “shenikberu” [“who is buried here”], and the person holding the flashlight for me, I couldn’t see, it was tiny print, and he’s Israeli, he said, “po.” Here, here, here! I had never said an “El Maleh Rachamim” for people who were caught up in this tragedy, here. In situ. It was very powerful.

And then on the 30th [in Berlin] after our special envoy meeting, we all walked over to the [city’s] Holocaust memorial. And Felix [Klein, Germany’s special commissioner on antisemitism and Jewish life] had brought stones. And we were standing there, and to borrow a phrase from Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” there was this pregnant pause. And I said, “Would you like me to recite a prayer?” And I recited the prayer, another “El Maleh Rachamim,” and I became totally verklempt [overcome with emotion]. Because I was just a 12-minute walk, if that long, from where it was planned and carried out, and that was very powerful as well.

So the trip was pregnant with meaning, but I think more than just meaning, hopefully also impact.