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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2001 / 17 Teves, 5761

Quin Hillyer

Quin Hillyer
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Sometimes, history lessons
can carry rays of hope -- WHAT the new Bush administration needs, what this country needs, is a sense of purpose, a sense of an overarching goal that unites us all in common as Americans again. Sen. John McCain excited lots of Americans last winter by reminding us of "the greatness of America," and by calling on Americans to live up to our potential.

Usually, what it takes to unify people is either a great evil to fight against or a great ideal to achieve.

Eleven years ago in Louisiana, a hatemonger united people of disparate political persuasions to defeat him.

Two hundred and thirteen years ago, an indefatigable young intellectual united people of disparate, culturally varied states to prove that an extend ed constitutional republic could actually survive.

On the very same day four months ago, I was movingly reminded of the debt I owe to both of those unlikely occasions of unity.

Former Tulane University history professor Lawrence Powell was here in Mobile, giving a short talk about and signing copies of his new book, "Troubled Memory." It's about the odyssey traveled by a woman named Anne Skorecki Levy, from the Holocaust in World War II as a 4-year-old to a series of confrontations in Louisiana with the Holocaust- apologist, Hitler-birthday-celebrating politician, David Duke.

I first met Lawrence Powell on a wet November night in a dimly lit meeting room in Jefferson Parish, La. I was a between-jobs conservative activist and sportswriter; Powell was a liberal professor. Also at the meeting were other academics, an evangelical minister, a leftist priest/commuity activist, a Reaganite Republican party office-holder, Jewish leaders, and various others. What drew us together was the rising political strength of Mr. Duke, who sold himself as a mild-mannered Yuppie conservative reformer while still covertly keeping in contact with a host of neo-Nazi hate groups.

Before the night was out, Powell and I were named board members of the new Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, the organization later widely credited with effectively blocking Duke's further political ascension. (The credit was earned long after I, once again a professional journalist, had to resign from the board.) Still, Duke managed briefly to pull even in the polls just three weeks away from the election for governor in Louisiana. It was a real battle.

As Powell said at his Mobile book signing, "We took truth as our candidate, and wanted to unmask Duke as the fraud that he was. ... It was a moral counter-movement."

Powell had set out to write the account of how the Coalition rallied opposition to Duke, but instead found himself enthralled with the subject that was supposed to take up just one chapter - namely, the harrowing, and eventually heartwarming, story of how Anne Levy and her sister managed to be among the mere 1 percent of Jewish children under age 10 who survived the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mrs. Levy, an immigrant to New Orleans, had come to the Coalition's attention when she con fronted Duke as he perused, and seemed to belittle, a traveling Holocaust exhibit. And what Larry Powell said he found fascinating as he interviewed her were "the questions of altruism, of why people [gentiles in Poland] risked their lives to help [Jewish] strangers. That altruism becomes evolutionary. ... In the midst of the Holocaust, there were also moments when light pierced the darkness, times filled with goodness."

Ultimately, the fact that Hitler was defeated, and that a few such as Anne Levy survived and eventually prospered in a new land, taught Powell that there is "more to the future than the doom of cycli cal repetition."

In other words, Powell in Mobile carried a message of hope. The most impressive evidence of that hope was the warm, contented demeanors of Mrs. Levy and her sister, Lila Skorecki Millen, both of whom accompanied Powell to the book signing.

"I've become much more fortunate," said Mrs. Levy, "since I've become an American."

By a coincidence of timing, her brief encomium to America carried particular emotional relevance for me that day. That morning, an aide to U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions had called to tell me that Sessions, along with iconic Sens. Robert Byrd, Strom Thur mond and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was ready to introduce legislation of particular interest to me. The bill, which drew co-sponsors ranging from Ted Kennedy on the left to Jesse Helms on the right, was signed into law on Dec. 19. It will set up a commission to commemorate the 250th birthday next March of James Madison, the aptly nicknamed "Father of the Constitution."

The idea is to use Madison's quarter-millennium birthday as an occasion for civic education, so that American adults will be reminded, and American youngsters can learn, of just how difficult and re markable an achievement was the constitutional order created by Madison and his colleagues.

So high were the passions surrounding the Constitution back then that one of the other key found ers, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, was beaten nearly to death by a mob who opposed the new form of government.

Madison and Wilson, Washington and Franklin and their peers worked and risked and in many cases suffered to create a country where refugees from evil could find freedom and hope.

In no way, of course, did they suffer like Anne Levy and Lila Millen, who every weekday for months remained motionless and silent in a vegetable bin for 12 hours so as to avoid Nazi detection. But America's founders would certainly be proud to know that the country they created could help provide a sanctuary for redemption from that suffering.

And that in that free country, Americans of conflicting political views could unite to block neo-Nazis from gaining the power that could again threaten not just Anne Levy, but everybody who holds that some human rights are inalienable and worthy of every measure of devotion.

For both the Holocaust, and for the history of America's founding, a Jewish proverb quoted by professor Powell bears repeating: "In remembrance lies the secret of redemption."

JWR contributor Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer for the Mobile Register. Comment by clicking here.


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