Never forgetting will help us keep the promise of “never again.”

Published in RINewsToday.com on February 1, 2021

During a Pro-Trump rally, as thousands of rioters swarmed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer, sporting an unkempt beard, came wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Camp Auschwitz,” in white letters, the name of the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II.  Under a skull and bones at the bottom of his shirt was the phrase, “Work brings Freedom,” a loose translation of the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” that was inscribed above the main entrance gate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps’ gates. 

Packer’s image, 56, a former welder and pipefitter, was circulated widely on social media and by newspapers, evoking shock and disbelief.

Packer, a resident of Newport News, Virginia, was not the only anti-Semitic rioter that day, according to a report released by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the failed Capitol Insurrection who had also attended President Trump’s “Save America” rally speech. 

In recent years, anti-Semitic incidents have become more common in the Ocean State.

In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of anti-Semitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue.

Anti-Semitism is Nothing New

But, anti-Semitism, exhibited at the “Save America” rally, has been in our country since its founding, and in fact, has been around western societies for centuries.  Over three years ago, torch marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a controversial Confederate monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry).  

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism documented world-wide anti-Semitism. The survey found that more than 1 billion people – nearly one in eight – around the world harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the ADL, this landmark survey included 53,100 adults in 102 countries representing 88 percent of the world’s adult population.

Over 30 percent of those surveyed said it was ‘probably true’ that Jews have too much control over financial markets, that Jews think they are better than other people, that Jews are disloyal to their country, and that people hate Jews because of the way that Jews behave. 

Most troubling, the ADL study found a large gap between seniors who know and lived through the horrendous events of World War II, and younger adults who, some 75 years after the Holocaust, are more likely to have heard of or learned that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Nearly half of those surveyed claim to have never heard of the Holocaust and only a third believe historical accounts are accurate.

Gearing Up to Fight Antisemitism

On Jan. 14, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organization, briefed the FBI on the continuing threats of anti-Semitism to the nation. 

“Antisemitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society,” Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told the FBI officials on a video conference briefing. “Education is essential, to clarify what constitutes antisemitism, the various sources of this hatred, and what effective tools are available for law enforcement to fight antisemitism,” she said.

The presentation of AJC’s second annual report on antisemitism in the U.S. took place in the wake of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, where anti-Semitic images and threats were openly conveyed by some of the rioters.

AJC’s 2020 report, based on parallel surveys of the American Jewish and general populations, revealed that 88 percent of Jews considered antisemitism a problem today in the U.S., 37 percent had personally been victims of antisemitism over the past five years and 31 percent had taken measures to conceal their Jewishness in public.

In the first-ever survey of the general U.S. population on antisemitism, AJC found a stunning lack of awareness of antisemitism. Nearly half of all Americans said they had either never heard the term “antisemitism” (21 percent) or are familiar with the word but not sure what it means (25 percent).

The AJC experts praised the FBI for its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, which provides vital data on antisemitism. The latest report found 60.2 percent of religious bias hate crimes targeted Jews in 2019. But the report historically has not provided a full picture of the extent of hate crimes, since reporting by local law enforcement agencies is not mandatory.

To improve the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, AJC continues to advocate for passage of the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act. This measure will incentivize state and local law enforcement authorities to improve hate crime reporting by making grants available and managed through the Department of Justice.

In addition, AJC is asking the FBI to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as an educational tool. The definition offers a clear and comprehensive description of antisemitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews, and Holocaust denial. 

FBI officials in the Bureau’s Civil Rights Unit, Intelligence Division, and Community Outreach Program, among others, participated in the AJC briefing.

Keeping the memory alive about the Holocaust is key to fighting antisemitism, says Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). “”We are seeing a disturbing trend in the rise of antisemitism and the open display of neo-Nazi symbols, most recently at the attack on the U.S. Capitol. This is a long-time problem requiring a long-time solution. We must remember. Education is key. We must learn from this history-learn about the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism. And we must not be silent,” he says.

Adds Bill Benson, who has interviewed Holocaust Survivors before live audiences at the USHMM’s First Person program for more than 2 decades, observes that the majority of those visiting the museum are not Jewish and many of have little familiarity with the Holocaust, and as a result of their visit are profoundly affected by their experience. “The USHMM provides an extraordinary avenue for educating the general public about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for those millions who visit it, but it is essential that many millions more learn the truth about anti-Semitism and that must done through our educational systems,” he notes.

“The USHMM does an incredible job of educating and assisting teachers who want to teach about the Holocaust, but far too many school systems do not teach about the Holocaust, without which the gulf in knowledge and awareness may only grow as we lose those first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust,” says Benson.

A 2009 report, “Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust Residing in the United States Estimates & Projections: 2010 – 2030,” prepared by the Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, estimated that 36,800 Holocaust survivors would still be living by 2025. As the number of survivors who witnessed the horrors of Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continues to dwindle, a growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, and have established Commissions to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, GenZ and  younger generations through educational programming and raise awareness through public education and community events to provide appropriate memorialization of the Holocaust on a regular basis throughout the state.

If the Rhode Island General Assembly legislates the establishment of a Rhode Island Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, its motto might just be, “Never forgetting” will help us keep the promise of “Never Again.”

Red Bandana Fund Concert to be Walton’s Legacy

Published in Pawtucket Times, June 7, 2013

           Richard Walton, who died on Dec. 27, would have loved it.  Five months after his death one late Sunday afternoon, over 40 people including the musicians who had just played at The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert (that was attended by hundreds), family members along with the organizers and volunteers of this fundraiser, gathered to drink beer and reminisce about Walton’s extraordinary life at his favorite Pawtucket hangout, Doherty’s East Avenue Irish Pub.

          People swapped favorite stories for hours, detailing how the late Walton “touched their lives,” noted one attendee, Richard Wahlberg, one of the organizers.  “Every one had such an interesting story to tell about Richard,” he stated, noting that the Warwick resident, known as a social activist, educator, humanitarian, very prolific writer, and a co-founder of Pawtucket’s Stone Soup Coffee House “had made everyone feel that they themselves had a very special, close relationship with him.” 

         Seeing so many of Walton’s friends at June 2nd concert, Wahlberg and other attending viewed the event as a “gathering of the clan” since the audience was really Walton’s extended Rhode Island family.    

 Walton’s Legacy of Supporting the Needy

         The idea to organize last weekend’s fundraiser concert to raise money to support the causes of the late Richard Walton and others like him who work to improve the human condition was literally kicked around a few days after Walton’s death by his daughter, Cathy Barnard, his son Richard and a few close friends, noted nationally-acclaimed children’s entertainer and storyteller, Bill Harley.   

          According to Harley, an annual fundraiser, supporting the newly formed Red Bandana Fund, would replace Walton’s annual birthday bash – usually held the first Sunday in June – to raise money for Amos House & the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project and other progressive causes.  Over 24 years, Walton had raised large sums of money for these favorite charities, attracting hundreds of people each year including the state’s powerful political and media elite to celebrate his progressive causes at his family compound located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick. 

         Coming up with a name for Walton’s fundraiser that would ultimately be tied to his unique fashion sense and was the idea of her brother, Richard, states Barnard.  Her brother, like most people, had a vivid, visual image of his father, who had long white hair and beard, being known for wearing his trademark worn blue jean overalls, a red bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap.

          “When Dad’s closest friends came over to the house after his death they wanted one of his red bandanas to remember him,” Barnard remembered.

       “It was like a talisman to them,” stated Barnard, that became a great way to create the perfect moniker and recognition for an upcoming fundraiser.

          Barnard says that her father didn’t opt for a traditional burial, so there would be no monument of stone over his grave to remember him or a place for family and friends to visit.  His cremated remains were scattered the day before the Sunday fundraiser by his family and very close friends in his beloved garden and sent by paper boat from the inlet where his compound was located into Narragansett Bay.

         But, there is The Red Bandana Fund now, says Barnard, noting that “we cannot think of a more appropriate memorial.”  Over 300 people attended the inaugural Walton fundraiser, bringing in more than $12,000 from ticket sales, silent action and raffle.

          At this event, the first recipient of The Red Bandana Fund Award, Amos House, was chosen because of Walton’s very long relationship with the Providence-based nonprofit.  He was a founding board member, serving for over 30 years, being board chair for a number of years.  For almost three decades, the homeless advocate spent an overnight shift with the men who lived in the 90-Day Shelter Program each Thursday bringing them milk and cookies.  Each Friday morning he would make pancakes and eggs in the soup kitchen for hundreds of men and women who came to eat a hot meal.

 Putting the Pieces Together

         The organizers were gathered by Bill Harley on the advice of Richard’s family and those closest to him from the progressive community and organizations Richard was affiliated with.  In true Richard Walton fashion this was a largely self organizing group built on the complementary strengths of the members, noted Wahlberg.  Over five months, this group had planned all the organizational facets, from marketing, pre-selling tickets, booking Shea High School, recruiting volunteers for the day of the event, along with getting items donated to be sold at a silent auction and raffle.

         With the decision to host a fundraising concert, “it became incredibly painful to have to limit the list of who we would invite to play,” said Harley, noting that every one who knew Walton wanted to perform to pay tribute to him.

          As Rudy Cheeks, of Phillipe + Jorge’s Cool, Cool, World, would remark in his May 31st column, the two hour concert would be an amazing blend of folk and traditional music, a little bit of classical, along with singer-songwriting greats, all sharing the same stage for the evening.  They included: widely recognized singers and song writers, Bill Harley, Kate Katzberg, Atwater-Donnelly, Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen, Christina Tompson, accompanied by Cathy Clasper-Torch on fiddle and Marty Ballou on stand up bass.  Consuelo Sherba opened the concert by playing a short classical set.

        According to Harley, who served as the event’s musical director, internet files of the selected music (three songs for each performer) went back and forth between those chosen to play, to help them to quickly learn the music to be played at the upcoming concert.  He noted that each song had to have simple chord arrangements with words that the audience could easily remember. Most important, “these songs were chosen to reflect who Richard, the person was,” he said.  Amazingly, the musicians would gather just two hours before the performance to practice with each other.

 Those Who Knew Him

         At intermission, I caught up with Andy Smith, former music critic at the Providence Journal who now covers hard news for that daily paper.  He knew Walton for years covering Stone Soup Coffee House and sporadically attending his legendary birthday party over the years.  “No one could hang out in Rhode Island without knowing about Richard Walton,” he says.  That’s true.

         The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert was a “very sweet, very nice chance for people who know Richard to come together and celebrate his life,” observed Smith, noting that “the best way to do this was through music.”  He would have had a good time if he were here today, says Smith, adding that  “May be he is here [in spirit].”

         Like many attendees, Jane Falvey, treasurer of Stone Soup Coffee House noted, that Walton touched many lives. “Like stones cast into a pond, the ripples form ever-widening circles that overlap, and so it was at the inaugural Red Bandana Concert – Richard’s many circles embracing each other in remembering and celebrating his wonderful life and the purpose he created in all of us,” she said.

        Also in attendance, Dr. Michael Fine, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health, who came with his wife, Carol, called Walton  his “old friend,”  giving him a unique descriptive nickname, the “Prince of Pay it Forward.”

         Dr. Fine believes that Walton understood the value of living in a democracy. “He taught us about this value and gave us examples of what we would have to do each and every day to keep it alive,” he said.  Walton also taught us how to take care of each other,” stated Dr. Fine. 

         Linde Rachel, a resident of Maureillas, France, and companion of Walton’s for 9 years who traveled with him throughout Europe, Africa and the Baltic States, sees an important message in the songs sung at last Sunday’s The Red Bandana Fundraiser.  “The songs were all about being part of a community, the one that he helped to create and was part of,” stated Rachel.   

         Days later, Barnard tells me that she is thrilled with the success of The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert.  “We were amazed at the large turnout,” she says, noting that she even met people in person she had heard her father talk about over his long years.

         “We’re hoping that this will be just the beginning and not the end of it,” says Barnard, the beginning legacy of her father’s long-tradition of giving back to those in need.

       Her father would surely nod his head in agreement.

          For more information about donating to The Red Bandana Fund, go to http://www.soup.org/page1/RedBandana.html.

         Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.