At first, the grainy, sped-up, black-and white footage of men, women, and children being lined up and shot, their bodies kicked into open graves, looks like something from a silent film. But these are images from a real event. Later, as I walk through the cool, narrow corridors of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, listening to the narrator walk me through history, looking at the brutal instruments of death, and running my hands along the artifacts collected from the dead, everything feels somehow strange and otherworldly. The horrors depicted and described in this place did not happen inside a movie, but happened to real people, some of whom are in my family tree.

My mother is Jewish. My great-grandparents fled Poland and Russia at the turn of the 19th century in search of a better life. But if they hadn’t—and their emigration was perilous and uncertain—perhaps I would never have stood viewing footage of human atrocities. After all, it could have been my grandparents falling into those open graves.

I wept as I saw piles of shoes, glasses, children’s toys. People with hopes and dreams, ruthlessly hunted, captured, and killed. In a large, round room that looked like a planetarium, stars on the ceiling represented children; 1.5 million of them. In each star, I imagined the face of one of my children, vulnerable and innocent, marked for death.

Hindsight allows us to review history and be outraged from a distance. But the pathway to genocide was paved by a slow and steady marginalization of the Jewish people. First, they were the wealthy bankers of high society scapegoated for Germany’s loss of national character. Populist outrage, in a time of economic distress, worked to justify the slow ...

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