Isaac Bashevis Singer fled Nazi Europe in 1935 and came to this country. He married my grandmother, who had escaped from Hitler's Germany in 1940. He went on to become a lauded author and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978. His family -- those who stayed behind -- were killed in the concentration camps.
My grandfather was also a principled vegetarian. He was one of the first to equate the wholesale slaughter of humans to what we perpetrate against animals every day in slaughterhouses. He realized that the systems of oppression and murder that had been used in the Holocaust were the systems being used to confine, oppress and slaughter animals. He attributed to a character in one of his books something he believed in himself: "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis. For [them], it is an eternal Treblinka."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, has come under fire from the Anti-Defamation League for a campaign highlighting my grandfather's ideas as well as writings from others -- including German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, who was forced into exile by the Nazis, and Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, who was imprisoned in Dachau -- that compare the suffering of Holocaust victims with that of farmed animals.
The ADL claims that PETA is exploiting the Holocaust for publicity. The campaign has sparked debate and controversy in the Jewish community, but my grandfather would have been proud of PETA's bold campaign.
The Holocaust happened because ordinary people chose to ignore the extraordinary oppression and abuse being inflicted on innocents by the Nazis. Millions of people went about their daily lives, knowingly turning a blind eye to the suffering of those they didn't relate to, those who were deemed "unworthy of life."
My grandfather often said that this mind-set, whether it manifested itself as the oppression of animals or of people, exemplified the most hideous and dangerous of all racist principles. As Adorno said, "Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: They're only animals."
My grandfather was a gentle man who always extended a compassionate hand to those who could not speak for themselves. He had birds as pets, but he always left their cages open because he couldn't bear to see any being behind bars. They used to fly out one window and in another of his apartment. When asked why he was a vegetarian, he'd reply, "I'm a vegetarian for health reasons: the health of the chickens." Because of him, I am also now a vegetarian.
Because of my family's history and the gentle guiding force of my grandfather, I learned the sad lessons of prejudice and ignorance and the ways to fight them. I learned that to remember the horrors of the past is not enough -- we must apply what we've learned and say with conviction, "Never again." But when we say it, we must mean never again shall we allow this to happen to anyone, for any reason.
Like the victims of the Holocaust, animals are rounded up, trucked hundreds of miles to the kill floor and slaughtered. Comparisons to the Holocaust are not only appropriate but inescapable because, whether we wish to admit it or not, cows, chickens, pigs and turkeys are as capable of feeling loneliness, fear, pain, joy and affection as we are. To those who defend the modern-day holocaust on animals by saying that animals are slaughtered for food and give us sustenance, I ask: If the victims of the Holocaust had been eaten, would that have justified the abuse and murder? Did the fact that lampshades, soaps and other "useful" products were made from their bodies excuse the Holocaust? No. Pain is pain.
My grandfather wrote, "[A]s long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler.... There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is."
We all have the power to stop suffering and misery every time we sit down to eat.