Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh

Column: Jewish PTSD…From a Pittsburgh Shul to a Vegas School

The shock value of the spectacle that General Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed at the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, is now being revived on a smaller scale with the Tree of Life trial and a grisly attack in Las Vegas.

In early April 1945, the army’s dreadful discovery of rotting bodies and emaciated survivors led to Eisenhower’s fateful visit, prompting him to guarantee that the world knew. Many of us have seen the documentary films of bodies being bulldozed into pits and have watched the multiple Holocaust movies.

It could not happen here? Some have tried hard, like the Georgians who in 1915 lynched Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew wrongly convicted of murder, and in recent years the shooting death of an Orthodox Jewish student in New York in 1994, a fatal shooting spree in a Jewish Federation in Seattle in 2006 and the tragic synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif.

It is the shock value that wakes people up to antisemitic violence. These incidents can open their eyes to the magnitude and cruelty of bias against Jews. Such events also force the Jewish community to recall the pain of just thinking about the centuries of persecution that our ancestors and ourselves have experienced.

Many of us can sound downright paranoid. We can overreact, including myself. A Jewish friend in Miami Beach accused the state election bureau of malice when it scheduled a primary election on the last day of Passover. I wondered if election officials were confused because Jewish holidays commence at dusk; fortunately, they changed the date after the mistake was brought to their attention.

Many believe that all non-Jewish people seek our elimination. All Arabs intend to destroy Israel; many do, but by no means not all.

This attitude amounts to a communal form of post-traumatic-stress disorder, or post-traumatic-antisemitic-disorder, if you will.

The Jewish version of PTSD could be tested for the next three months as Robert Bowers goes on trial for slaughtering 11 members of three congregations who gathered to worship at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 – 73 years after Eisenhower commanded that Hitler’s worst horrors be shared with the rest of the world.

“The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick,” the future president wrote to General George C. Marshall, who then headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. “In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter.

“I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda,’” added Eisenhower, who subsequently arranged for reporters and Congress members to witness the spectacle at Ohrdruf, 200 miles south of Berlin.

Perhaps even Eisenhower could not visualize anything remotely like it happening in America. Yet it did occur, 185 miles west of his former farm in Gettysburg.

The Tree of Life trial, which opened in federal court on Monday with jury selection, could prove to be a trial for Jews worldwide, and especially an ordeal for the tightknit neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh’s center for Jewish life.

“This trial is going to reopen wounds that this community has suffered for almost five years now, and it’s going to have the ability to retraumatize many people in the community,” security specialist Brad Orsini told a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The image of the defendant gunning down the 11 congregants may never have left us, and we will be reminded of it often during the trial, which is expected to last three months.

“It’s OK not to be OK, and we will get through this together,” said Alan Hausman, president of the Tree of Life Congregation, according to the Associated Press.

Neighbors in Squirrel Hill suggested to reporters that they will endure hearing about the trial so that the defendant can be brought to justice. His attorneys proposed a plea agreement for Bowers to plead guilty to all counts in exchange for life in prison, without the possibility of release. Federal prosecutors rejected the offer and moved forward with a trial in two stages – first to determine guilt or innocence and then to seek a death penalty verdict, according to The New York Times.

The charges, 67 in all, include 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death. Authorities said he carried out the shootings with a Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and three Glock .357 handguns, the Times reports. His lawyers apparently plan an insanity-style defense, primarily to avoid the death penalty.

The trial was on hold for 4 1/2 years partly because defense attorneys filed multiple motions, according to JTA.

No firearms were employed in a ghoulish assault upon an autistic 17-year-old Jewish student who is nonverbal.

In mid-March, the student returned home one afternoon from Clark High School in Las Vegas, and his mother noticed what appeared to be a swastika scratched into his back, according to The Las Vegas Review Journal.

The youth could have been readily identified as Jewish because he wears a kippah, a type of yarmulke.

What happened so far remains a mystery. It is not even known if the student was attacked at the school or on his way home. The assailant/assailants picked a convenient victim, one who could not even talk about the incident.

Local authorities have investigated, and the FBI stated, “If during the local investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal civil rights violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate.”

Etching a swastika image on the back of a Jewish student? That would be a civil rights violation.

Even if no ethnic-like crime was involved, it was still a crime that must be investigated.

The Vegas story broke on Thursday last week, and the national media is beginning to pick it up. The New York Post published a story on Sunday. Maybe the shock value will soon outrage people and call attention to antisemitism.

That is usually what it takes to arouse people. It should not take such mortifying acts to compel a strong response. The very fact that antisemitic acts and all other bigoted acts persist should be enough to galvanize a powerful response.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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