As anti-Semitism continues its resurgence across the Western world, including in the United States, it seems fitting to remember the Jewish people's darkest hour, to help fulfill that eternal promise: Never again. Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, of the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming, did just that on Thursday, holding an event in Jackson for Jona Laks, who survived the Holocaust and shared her story with those in attendance. Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), who has been outspoken about the need to fight anti-Semitism, was one of those people in attendance.
Thursday was not the first time that Laks and Cheney were in the same room. In 2005, they attended a ceremony in Krakow, Poland, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where Laks suffered as a prisoner during World War II. Cheney was accompanying her father and the head of the American delegation, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, and brought along her young daughter, Katy.
At the event, Liz Cheney sat next to Avraham Berkowitz, a rabbi in Moscow and a friend of Mendelsohn's, and asked him to explain to her daughter the significance of the event in a way an 11 year old could appreciate. It was later that day, however, when Katy would get an unforgettable history lesson. Berkowitz introduced the Cheneys to Laks, one of the few twins to survive the experiments by Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the Angel of Death. (Laks has described how Mengele would remove organs from people without anesthetics, and if one twin died, the other would be murdered.) Berkowitz then asked Laks to explain the event's significance to Katy. Instead of giving a lengthy response, Laks rolled up her sleeve and showed Katy the number that the Nazis tattooed on her arm.
"This is what this is all about," Laks said, according to the Jackson Hole News and Guide. "Hitler numbered us. Hitler thought of us as being people who had no value other than a simple number."
Fourteen years later, Laks and Cheney are still close, and the congresswoman is working with Jewish leaders, like Mendelsohn, to tell her story.
When Mendelsohn heard about the interaction, he was inspired to reach out to Laks, who is now 89.
"I heard the story of this woman and how she so thoughtfully found a way to be able to teach a young child what the Holocaust means—to communicate that to such a young child to me was just so beautiful," he told the Jackson Hole. "I felt that I have to find a way to be able to bring her out."
With Cheney's help, the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming hosted Laks on Thursday.
Laks, now an activist, stated her message for audiences while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.
"So for us, the last surviving witnesses, the message is not to forget anything," she said. "But also that human life is sacred, and that we all must do everything in our power to preserve and prevent future major tragedies like the one that befell my people."
For Cheney, the fight against anti-Semitism did not end with the Holocaust. In fact, she has made that fight a priority since entering Congress. In March, for example, Cheney castigated House Democrats for "enabling" members of their caucus to make anti-Semitic comments. She specifically referred to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.), who in recent weeks had accused American politicians of supporting Israel because of the influence of Jewish money and insinuated that American Jews are guilty of "allegiance to a foreign country," meaning Israel.
Then in May, Cheney called Rep. Rashida Tlaib's (D., Mich.) recent comments about the Holocaust "sickening." Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, said on a podcast that a "calming feeling" comes over her when she thinks of the Holocaust because the tragedy reminds her that Palestinians lost their land, lives, and dignity "to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust." It is unclear whether Tlaib knows that the Arabs in what is today the state of Israel rioted to prevent Jews from immigrating there when the Nazis were in power, or that there was extensive collaboration between the Nazis and Arab leaders at the time.
"What Tlaib is doing isn't Holocaust denial but very close," said Cheney, who added that some House Democrats are anti-Semitic.