Holocaust survivors could be re-traumatized by the symbol representing a “concept that represented the annihilation of an entire people” and the horrors they experienced, said Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director of the Jewish Federations Holocaust Survivor Care Center. from North America. .
His grandparents met in a displacement camp in Austria after World War II.
“I recognize the swastika as a symbol of hate,” he said.
Steven Heller, author of Swastika: symbol beyond redemption?, said it is “a charged symbol for so many whose loved ones were criminally and brutally murdered.” Heller’s great-grandfather died during the Holocaust.
“A rose by any other name is a rose,” he said. “For many, it creates a visceral impact.”
The symbol itself dates back to prehistoric times. The word “swastika” has Sanskrit roots and means “the mark of well-being”. It has been used in Hindu prayers, carved into the emblem of Jains, marked the location of Buddhist temples, and represented the four elements for Zoroastrians.
The symbol is ubiquitous in India today. It has also been found in Roman catacombs, as well as various locations in Greece, Iran, Ethiopia, Spain, and the Ukraine.
The symbol was revived during 19th century excavations in the ancient city of Troy by a German archaeologist, who connected it to Aryan culture. Historians believe this is what made it attractive to the Nazi Party, which adopted it in 1920.
In North America in the early 20th century, swastikas found their way into architectural features, military insignia, and team logos. Coca Cola issued a swastika pendant. The Boy Scouts awarded badges with the symbol until 1940.
The Rev. TK Nakagaki said he was surprised when he heard the swastika being referred to as a “universal symbol of evil” at an interfaith conference. The New York-based Buddhist priest thinks swastikas are synonymous with temples.
In his 2018 book titled The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of HateNakagaki postulates that Hitler referred to it as the hooked cross or hakenkreuz.
“You can’t call it a symbol of evil or (deny) other facts that have been around for hundreds of years, just because of Hitler,” said Nakagaki, who believes more dialogue is needed.
The Coalition of North American Hindus is among several religious groups leading the effort to differentiate the swastika from the hakenkreuz. They supported a new California law that criminalizes its public display, except for the holy swastika.
Pushpita Prasad, a spokesman for the Hindu group, called it a victory but said the legislation unfortunately labels both the holy symbol and Hitler’s as swastikas.
It has led to self-censorship.
Vikas Jain, a Cleveland doctor, said his family hid images containing the symbol when they had visitors due to a lack of understanding. Jain says that he stands in solidarity with the Jewish community, but he is sad that he cannot freely practice his Jain faith.
Before World War II, the name “Swastika” was popular in North America, including for housing subdivisions in Miami and Denver, a village in upstate New York, and the name of a street in Ontario. Some have been renamed while others continue to carry it.
The Oregon Geographic Names Board will soon vote to rename Swastika Mountain on the Umpqua National Forest.
The name of the mountain, taken from a nearby ranch that used a swastika cattle brand, made headlines in January when hikers were rescued from the hill, said Kerry Tymchuk, director of the Oregon Historical Society.
A Eugene resident disputed the name, prompting the vote, he said.
For the Navajo people, the symbol represents the universe and life, said Patricia Anne Davis, an elder of the Choctaw and Dineh nations. She said that Hitler took a spiritual symbol “and twisted it.”
In the early 20th century, merchants encouraged native artists to use it in their crafts. After it became a Nazi symbol, various tribes banned it.
“I understand the wounds and trauma that Jews experience when they see that symbol,” Davis said. “All I can do is affirm its true meaning. …It is time to restore the authentic meaning.”
Jeff Kelman, a New Hampshire-based Holocaust historian, believes the hakenkreuz and the swastika were distinct. Kelman, who brings this message to Jewish communities, is optimistic about the redemption of the symbol.
“When they learn that an Indian girl could be called Swastika and could be bullied at school, they understand how they should view these two separate symbols,” she said.
“Nobody in the Jewish community wants to see Hitler’s legacy continue to hurt people.”
Greta Elbogen, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor whose relatives were killed at Auschwitz, said learning that the swastika is sacred to so many is a blessing and feels liberating. Elbogen, born in 1938 when Austria was forcibly annexed by the Nazis, hid in Hungary before immigrating to the United States.
Elbogen said he is no longer afraid of the symbol: “It’s time to put the past behind us and look to the future.”
For many, the swastika evokes a gut reaction like no other, said Mark Pitcavage, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which maintains the group’s database of hate symbols.
The ADL explains the sanctity of the swastika in many religions and cultures, but Pitcavage said that Hitler tainted the symbol: “While I think it’s possible to create some awareness, I don’t think its association with the Nazis can be entirely eliminated. ”