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.
A. Ralston says
Beautifully written and important message.
Meredith Cahn says
Sherry Reson says
Meredith – Thank you for your thoughtful and gentle tribute to Ernie James, a man I hadn’t heard of before and am glad to know about. My thanks, too, to his son for reaching out to you. Your Facebook link led me here this morning.
Meredith Cahn says
Helga Spizman says
I am always deeply moved to hear about people like this. It is so much easier to go with the flow – even if you see and experience this kind of thing, you are only doing your job – no need to carry it further. After all, you aren’t Jewish. But to speak out about your experiences – to bear witness to the horror – to actively teach, to spread the information, to answer the questions and to reinforce the knowledge by virtue of your having been there, seen it. There is nothing like the first hand experience shared – more than pictures, books or film, that personal experience resonates with people and, sometimes, BECAUSE he wasn’t Jewish and has “no axe to grind”, his information is all the more valid and truthful.
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks, Helga. I feel the same way — that’s why i felt like there needed to be a Jewish presence acknowledging his service.
Jamie James says
Thank you Rabbi Cahn for posting this.
It was one of my father’s last wishes that a Rabbi be in attendance at his memorial. Your tribute was, in the family’s opinion, the most beautiful and appropriate component of his life’s celebration, especially given his dedication to the promise he made some 40 years ago. Dad estimated that he reached out to 15,000 high school and college students. That estimate was made 15 years ago; I suspect he in reality influenced more like double that number.
Thank you for being there for him and for us.
Meredith Cahn says
It was truly my honor, Jamie. And a few people who read it from Facebook commented on how moved they were by your dad’s actions. Truly, his memory is a blessing to urge people to follow his example.
Trudy James says
Ernie’s memory is a blessing.
He was my father-in-law. I am Jewish, from a family deeply rooted in religion and tradition. My own father’s family was exterminated by the Nazis in Poland. I am proud to have known Ernie and even prouder my son had him as a grandfather. Ernie was a wonderful person in many many ways. His dedication to Holocaust remembrance and education is an important piece of the legacy he leaves behind, not only for his family, but for all who knew him or heard his story.