Stephen B. Jacobs has a warning from the past for America today: It’s happening again.
At 79 years old he is among the youngest of the living Holocaust survivors and was born six years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. But Jacobs can remember life in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald; what the Nazis did to him, his family, his friends.
He worries about what’s happening right now in America, where he has lived and prospered since arriving a couple of years after Buchenwald’s liberation on April 11, 1945.
The American far-right appears emboldened since the election of President Donald Trump, who led an inflammatory, nationalist campaign. Since then, clashes like the one in Charlottesville are becoming almost commonplace.
“Things just go from bad to worse every day,” Jacobs, a successful New York architect who designed the Holocaust memorial at Buchenwald, tells Newsweek. “There’s a real problem growing.”
So much so that Jacobs thinks there’s a “direct parallel” with Germany between the two world wars.
“Things that couldn’t be said five years ago, four years ago, three years ago—couldn’t be said in public—are now normal discourse. It’s totally unacceptable.
“We thought our country had changed. In fact, it didn’t. We were operating on a misconception. ‘My god, we elected a black president in the United States! Look how far we’ve come!’ We haven’t.”
In Trump, Jacobs says, the far-right sees an “enabler.”
“I’m involved with New York real estate, I know this man personally,” says Jacobs, whose eponymous architecture firm celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017. “Trump is an enabler. Trump has no ideas. Trump is out for himself.
“He’s a sick, very disturbed individual. I couldn’t say that Trump is a fascist because you’ve got to know what fascism is. And I don’t think he has the mental power to even understand it.”
Jacobs calls New York, where he lives, an “island of resistance.” But he says Washington will soon realize too that “fascism has to be resisted.”
“Fascism could have been won in Spain. It could’ve been stopped. But appeasement of fascism is what led to everything,” Jacobs warns.
This is a man who lived what happens when fascism isn’t stopped before it metastasizes.
He was born in Łódź, Poland, in 1939. His father, a physician, moved the family to Piotrków, near Warsaw, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September of that year.
Piotrków, where many Jewish refugees in Poland fled, would become the Nazis’ first ghetto.
Liquidated in 1942, a labor camp was established with two factories, where the family lived until their brutal separation in 1944.
The women—his mother, three aunts and grandmother—were taken to a camp at Ravensbrück. The men—him, his older brother and his father—to Buchenwald.
“In my case, you didn’t eat in Buchenwald unless you worked. So I was given an identity card that said I was 16 years old,” Jacobs says. “I was five.”
He worked in a shoe factory, which also got him out of roll call every day. Working made you useful to the Nazis. Those not able to work, including young children like Jacobs, were sent to their deaths.
He was told to keep his hat low and bang on a shoe if a Nazi ever entered the workshop. And, if asked his age, to lie.
Before liberation, as the Allies closed in, the situation got especially dangerous because the Nazis rushed to liquidate the camp.
One memory haunted Jacobs. His father, trying to keep him safe, entrusted him and another young boy in his care to a gentile in the camp.
“That guy got scared and he abandoned us,” Jacobs says. “He put us in a barrack that had already been emptied. In other words, the people had already been deported.
“And we spent that night in this barrack and I will never forget that. I had nightmares about that for many, many years growing up.
“Somehow, in the morning, my father found us—I don’t know how he made the connection—and he took us and hid us in the TB ward in the hospital.”
Jacobs’ father was an orderly at the camp hospital. Nazis and German doctors didn’t enter the tuberculosis ward fearing infection, which made it a good, if risky, hiding place.
For years he wondered how his father managed to keep both him and his brother George alive. Then he realized: His father had help.
Help from the camp’s active underground resistance. Buchenwald was founded before the war in 1937 to intern political prisoners such as communists. Inevitably, the communist prisoners got organized.
They protected each other, arranged counterfeit paperwork, hid children from the camp guards. Some even held administrative posts in the camp. They ran the day to day.
“The underground decided that they couldn’t save everybody but they would save the children,” Jacobs says, crediting the resistance with saving more than 1,100 children.
Jacobs recalls, faintly, the underground’s armed uprising against camp guards, a prelude to liberation by the U.S. Third Army.
“I have memories of when we were in the TB ward that they were shooting outside and we put mattresses against the windows, and they told us to get under the beds,” he says. “We saw people running around with weapons and red armbands.”
There’s a picture of liberation where Rabbi Schacter of the U.S. Third Army is giving a religious service to Jewish camp survivors. A young Jacobs is in the foreground along with his older brother, George. It’s hanging at the Buchenwald museum.
It wasn’t until after liberation that Jacobs found out what happened to the rest of his family.
While in Ravensbrück, one of his aunts’ names appeared on a transportation list. She was going to be sent to Bergen-Belsen.
His grandmother made the decision: If one has to go, we all go.
So all the women ended up in Bergen-Belsen “which is about as bad as it could get,” Jacobs says.
“They exchanged lists of survivors between the camps,” he says, speaking of the early days after liberation.
“And I remember we were given a room in SS barracks that were outside the barbed wire enclosure of the camp. I remember sitting in that room with my father, and my brother running in very excited because he found my mother’s name on a survivors’ list.”
Somehow, the Jacobs family survived the three camps: Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen. Even his grandmother survived to witness liberation by the British, though she died a short time later.
Another incredible moment came after liberation. Before Buchenwald, in Piotrków, Jacobs’ father bribed an SS physician at the hospital in which he worked to help his family. At the war’s end, that same SS doctor was captured by the Russians and put on trial, facing execution.
“But my father gave an affidavit that saved his life,” Jacobs says. “I don’t know why. Even under those circumstances, he saved his life.”
The two men wrote to each other until the former SS doctor died though none of the correspondence survives.
“One of the things that I really regret is my parents died in the early 1980s, and at that time, we didn’t speak about this. It wasn’t something that you talked about,” Jacobs says. “They wanted to rebuild their lives and they didn’t want to focus on this.
“Unfortunately my brother, who was older, doesn’t remember a thing. I believe that his experience was much worse than mine because I never had a pre-war conscience. I didn’t have any other framework. But he had a pre-war life.
“I really believe that he suffered some very severe trauma and he doesn’t remember. He just doesn’t want to remember.”
Jacobs returned to the camp at Buchenwald in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of liberation and the opening of a new museum. He says the camp had become a kind of “cathedral” for German communists because of the underground resistance.
A narrative of self-liberation by the underground was fomented during the GDR years. But this was now the early days of German reunification. And Jacobs says he found himself caught in the middle of a German propaganda war.
The new museum pointedly referred to the camp’s liberation by the U.S. Third Army, showing footage of prisoners praising in English the Americans. It replaced the old exhibition that focused heavily on the story of communists in the camp.
“One side’s just as bad as the other, they’re both denying history,” Jacobs thought as he realized what was going on around him.
The truth, he believes, lies somewhere in middle. The camp was undoubtedly liberated by the U.S. Third Army.
But there was also an uprising at the same time, contributing to liberation efforts, and it’s down to the communist-run underground that so many people survived Buchenwald.
By the time the Americans turned up, 21,000 inmates were still alive at the camp, though around 240,000 people had passed through its gates between 1937 and 1945.
Prisoners were starved, diseased. Beaten to death by guards. Experimented on by twisted Nazi doctors. Including liquidation transports, where prisoners were sent to be murdered elsewhere, there were around 54,000 deaths at Buchenwald.
In the years after liberation, Buchenwald was used as a prison camp by the Soviet Union to detain Nazis.
Jacobs was told he is the only Holocaust survivor to design a memorial. He was asked in the late 1990s to come up with the Buchenwald Holocaust memorial by the U.S. Commission For The Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
The memorial, in the “Little Camp” area of Buchenwald, where Jews were mostly confined, was finished in 2002. Jacobs refused to take money for the work. “To me it was, in a way, an opportunity to bring this stuff to a closure,” Jacobs says.
Thinking about his memorial design, Jacobs didn’t want to go for the heroic Soviet style or anything as abstract as Peter Eisenman’s monument in Berlin.
“All the barracks were demolished and only the foundations are visible. As you walk through the camp, there’s no place to sit down,” Jacobs says.
“We wanted to create a place for quiet contemplation, where you could put your thoughts together. And the realization that we were doing this for future generations of German school kids. So we made sure the space was big enough to fit one bus.”
They excavated down in the ruins of a barrack to create a separate space for reflection. Jacobs used stone as a primary material, symbolic of the camp’s quarry where many prisoners were worked to death. Stone seats allow visitors to sit and take in what happened around them, prompted by plaques.
The design also features two large triangles on the floor. “The triangle is an important symbol here,” Jacobs says. “The triangle is the patch people wore. Every prisoner had some kind of triangle.”
A yellow triangle for Jews. Red for communists. Pink for homosexuals.
Jacobs also wanted to create a subliminal Star of David. “Some kids over the years have picked this up,” he says.
Memorials are intended to not only honor those who died yesterday, but to warn what tomorrow brings if lessons from the past are forgotten.
And it’s today’s generation, facing an ascendant far-right, who need to remember.
“I’ve gotten phone calls sometimes late at night from German teenagers who were there and they felt they had to speak to me. They wanted to know why did I do this, why did I do that,” Jacobs says.
“These are Germans. They’re not Jewish teenagers. There is a sense of gratification that, in a way, this thing works.”