Earlier this week, I was asked to share a few words at a funeral, as a local rabbi. The funeral was for a Christian, and, to be honest, I’ve never gotten such a request, and yet I felt, after listening to the son’s story, that I could not help but honor the request to honor Ernie James for what he did for the Jewish people.
Ernie was what we Jews call a Righteous Gentile, a term that has a long, illustrious past, and which came to mean those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Ernie didn’t do that, but he witnessed some of the great horror of the Final Solution, Hitler’s plan to rid Europe (and eventually the world) of my people. As I have read his writings over the last few days, I can’t help but be struck by the image of a 24 year old young man from Nebraska, who, yes, had seen horrors of war already in his young life, but who came face to face with the horror of extermination, of genocide. He opened railroad cars of dead bodies slithering out when the doors were opened. The stench must have been overpowering. As he was said to have noted upon seeing Saving Private Ryan, movies, not even that powerful movie, could capture that stench.
His view of humanity must have taken a downhill plunge during that time. As he wrote to Faith, his fiancee, and now his widow, from the scene of the horror,
You see the people from the concentration camps, the camps themselves and you wonder if the “Master Race” is really human. What is incongruous, the civilians complain to us that the forced laborers are looting their homes of food and moving in on them, the very same thing the Nazis did to their enemies. They have such an innocent manner. All I can say to them without losing my temper is “you brought them here.” What a far cry this is from home. We used to say it was Hitler, not the people but we were wrong. All civilians claim they are not Nazis and never have been, but we see different.
And still, he returned home, finished school, contributed to important work in building California, he raised two children (who call him “the best dad ever”), and lived to see great grandchildren and stayed married to the woman he wrote that letter to.
Then Ernie’s brother introduced him to one of Mengele’s twins, a woman tortured for the sake of the butcher’s supposed scientific medical research when she was but a small child. She asked him to be sure not to let people forget about what he saw, about what she experienced. He promised.
And he kept that promise.
He spoke with passion all over the Bay Area, throughout the state and made contributions to the US Holocaust Museum. He would not let anyone near him deny the Holocaust, because he had seen it, he had smelled it, he had made the people of Nordhausen dig the trenches to bury the 10,000 corpses whose lives had been snuffed out through starvation and lack of medical care.
He wanted to impress on the students he spoke to that someday in the not too distant future, all the Holocaust survivors would die out, and the liberators, the people who saw what the horror was, too, would be gone. And so it would be their responsibility to remind people, to tell people, that they heard it from someone who was there, they saw his photographs, they shared his sense of determination that we never let it happen again.
With each of the 15,000 or so people he reached, another seed of memory was planted, another possibility that people would keep in the forefront of their minds that genocide is not just morally wrong, and causes the perpetrators to surrender their humanity, but it is a horror to witness, impossible for any caring, feeling human being to fathom.
Holocaust survivors continue to speak and write for the same reasons, even as they age, and they are dying off. But when a non-Jew, someone who has no “reason” other than his strongly held conviction, does this, we consider him one of us, what the ancient rabbis called a ger tzedek, a non-Jew who supported us out of justice. Ernie saw the bodies of Nordhausen, the camp called the hell of Dora, which itself was considered the hell of Buchenwald. He knew what these places were, and he did not stand idly by the blood of his neighbors.
May Ernie James rest in peace, and his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.