In an assembly on February 6, writer, educator, and documentary photographer Rachael Cerrotti spoke to the Concord Academy student body about “the oldest hatred,” antisemitism, and shared her grandmother’s story of Holocaust survival. Cerrotti had spent time with the cast and crew of CA’s upcoming mainstage production, Indecent, by Paula Vogel, delving with them into topics of Jewish identity and prejudice. Cerrotti’s address to the entire school provided context for the play, which is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance.
Cerrotti presented a brief history of antisemitism, highlighting the pogroms that occurred in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Asch was born in 1880, and his experience as a Polish, Jewish novelist was based in the climate of increased fear of and violence toward the Jewish people of Europe. The horrific reality of pograms is often overshadowed by the genocide of the Holocaust, Cerrotti said, but “antisemitism didn’t begin with the Holocaust, nor did it end with the Holocaust.”
Genocide, she continued, “starts with words.” Understanding the power of propaganda and repeating false truths, it took Hitler only six months to consolidate power in Germany, turning a democracy into a dictatorship. And he didn’t act alone in orchestrating the industrialized murder of 6 million Jewish people.
Cerrotti’s grandmother’s family, who lived in Czechoslovakia, thought it could never happen there, but six years after Hitler assumed power, her grandmother was smuggled to Denmark in a rescue mission. She was the only member of her family to survive. Cerrotti played a clip of her speaking in her podcast, We Share the Same Sky.
While researching her grandmother’s story for the past 10 years, Cerrotti’s fears for the present have increased with the outbreak of the refugee crisis, the rhetoric of fear and xenophobia that democratic leaders now use, and a rise in racist, homophobic, and antisemitic incidents. “We’re living in a time where those who hate feel empowered to act on it,” she said.
In addressing the natural human tendency to “other” people, Cerrotti provided inspiration for individuals to speak up against all forms of hate, seen and unseen. She also acknowledged the complexity of the dynamics of prejudice, and the importance of self-reflection.
“I don’t want you to think that you understand antisemitism in all its complexity,” she told CA the CA community, “but rather, I want you to understand that there is much more to know about someone’s reality than what you see.”