Shock and anger were common feelings for most Americans who followed the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
To Jack Rosenthal, the hate-filled imagery was something he never thought he’d see again, at least not in the United States.
Rosenthal is one of 10,000 Romanian refugees who came to America after World War II. At 88 years old, he still mourns the loss of seven family members who died in the Auschwitz death camp. He was the only one to survive.
He was born and raised in a farming village in northern Romania. “Altogether in my village, there were 26 Jewish families,” Rosenthal told HuffPost. Most of them didn’t survive either.
Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews were massacred in pogroms, slaughtered in death camps or otherwise murdered by Romanian authorities, German forces and others during the war.
Rosenthal was 16 when he was taken to Auschwitz, the German Nazi camp in occupied Poland. Later, he was transferred to Buchenwald, another camp near Weimar, Germany, where he was forced to work for the Nazis ― the only reason he was kept alive until U.S. military forces began to evacuate the camp’s 28,000 prisoners in 1945. He came to the U.S. hoping to find a new beginning.
“After I was liberated, I thought to myself the world has learned what terrible traces hate can bring to humanity,” he said. “And now this gives me a depressing feeling because it’s happening again, and it’s happening now.”
The successful real estate agent watched the protests from his home in Roslyn, New York, where he lives during the warmer months of the year. In the winter, Rosenthal flies to Florida.
Decades later, he remembers how hard it was to get settled in the U.S. while dealing with the trauma from the war. “When I came here, I used to get really bad nightmares and I would get up in middle of the night not being able to go back to sleep,” he said.
Those days of lingering fear and uncertainty felt much closer after watching neo-Nazis rage during the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, he said. But after all the anti-Semitic speeches and the deadly car attack, it was one particular detail that caught Rosenthal’s attention.
He noticed it while reading about a Aug. 14 court hearing for James Alex Fields Jr., the man accused of plowing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the white nationalist rally, leaving a 32-year-old woman dead and injuring at least 19 other people. The article included a photo of Matthew Heimbach, who had helped promote the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, voicing his displeasure outside the courtroom after a judge denied bail for Fields.
The white supremacist’s T-shirt was the first thing Rosenthal saw. On the shirt was a picture of Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, a pre-WWII leader of the Romanian fascist Legion of Saint Michael the Archangel and the Iron Guard political party, which were both linked to the Nazi party.
Codreanu urged the destruction of the Jewish community in Romania. Members of his Iron Guard responded with brutality both before and during the war, including a horrifying massacre in Bucharest that killed over 100 Jews.
“I recognized the name right away,” Rosenthal said. “You see something like this, you know, it brings back memories and I’m concerned about what could happen in this country,” he said.
The groups behind the Unite the Right rally are not the only ones of their kind. According to a February report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 917 hate groups exist throughout the country.
Many Americans were concerned when President Donald Trump failed to immediately condemn white supremacy in responding to the Charlottesville violence. Instead, Trump blamed both sides of the protests ― a point he repeated on Tuesday.
“You cannot compare fascism and Nazis to the other people protesting. Maybe there are people on both sides who are misguided, but there is simply no comparison,” Rosenthal said.
And he reminded us that the consequences of going through horrific violence never really end. “It’s 70 years after the war and it still has a tremendous impact on me,” he said. “It’s something I’ll never forget and that’ll always be with me as long as I live.”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the number of Jews killed by the Iron Guard was significantly overstated in an earlier version of the story. The individual pogroms that killed thousands and tens of thousands of Jews in Romania during World War II were carried out by official Romanian and German forces.