Working for an environmental consulting firm in 1972, Alex Hershaft was horrified.
He was doing inventory at a slaughterhouse as an environmental consultant — with a Ph.D. in chemistry, he specialized in hazardous waste treatment — and still can’t get those images out of his mind.
“I was walking around taking notes of the waste storage areas, and I suddenly came across piles of hooves and hearts and heads and discarded [animal] bodies,” he recalled. “All were a silent testimony to the living, sentient beings who were no more.”
He was reminded of another image he knew all too well as a survivor of the Holocaust: the piles of human bodies in Nazi concentration camps. He couldn’t dismiss the similarities — the branding/tattooing of victims, the cattle cars, the crowded housing, the arbitrary designation of who lives and dies, he said — as merely coincidence, and has since devoted his life to veganism and the protection of animals.
Hershaft shared his personal journey from escaping the Warsaw Ghetto to fighting for animal rights at the Gershman Y April 26 for a Jewish Veg program.
Before the war broke out, Hershaft’s father received a visa to work as a chemist in the United States. By the time visas arrived for him and his mother, it was too late.
Hershaft was 5 when Nazis invaded his native Poland, and forced him and his mother into a cramped apartment with his grandparents in the ghetto. Within a year, the ghetto was walled off and topped with barbed wire.
“I am alive today because my grandparents had two blessings: They had gold jewelry, and they had a maid named Yulyana,” he remembered during his speech, which he only gives twice a year through Jewish Veg.
Yulyana was a Russian non-Jew and lived with his grandparents for many years prior. They became her only family.
Refusing to leave, Yulyana gained permission to live in the ghetto, where she was able to come and go, trading goods on the outside for food for the family.
Eventually it became too dangerous, and Hershaft’s grandmother forced her to leave for her own safety.
She complied on one condition: She would take Hershaft as her own son so he could live.
“She did this knowing full well that harboring a Jew was an instant sentence to death,” he said, pausing to wipe tears from his eyes.
Yulyana took Hershaft to his father’s sister, who passed as a gentile because she married a non-Jew. They never saw Yulyana again.
Aside from Hershaft, only his mother made it out of the ghetto alive, where they lived together in hiding for the next two and a half years. They ended up working on a farm in the countryside, withholding from their employer the fact that they were Jews.
His mother went into Warsaw each day to buy clothes from markets to then mend and sell in different villages. She became a popular institution.
“One of her friends in the village said, ‘You know, I have a funny story to tell you. You know there’s this guy who runs the clothing store in the village? He never really liked you because you’re underselling him. Yesterday he told me he thinks you’re Jewish. Can you believe that?’” Hershaft said. “She moved on, turned the corner, dropped her backpack and ran for the next hour.”
She fled from the farm that night. After the war, she found Hershaft in an orphanage. For five years after, they lived in an Italian refugee camp until their U.S. visas arrived.
Although no longer in danger, survivor’s guilt kicked in.
Fast forward to the ’70s, and he discovered a quote from Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer that changed his entire perspective: “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
“I finally realized that there wasn’t a valid reason for my survival and a valid way to repay my debt,” he said. “This is when I resolved to devote the rest of my life to fighting all forms of oppression and to start by fighting the oppression of animals.
“Animal oppression is the key to all oppression,” he continued. “Animals are the most defenseless, most vulnerable and, therefore, the most oppressed sentient living beings on Earth.”
Before veganism, Hershaft, 82, was a vegetarian — but for aesthetic reasons. At the time, he simply did not like the idea of consuming a mutilated animal. He became a vegan in 1981 and created the Farm Animal Rights Movement, an international nonprofit that supports a vegan lifestyle by sparing animals from being bred, abused or slaughtered for food. He is also a member of Jewish Veg’s advisory council.
Oppression is never about the victim but rather about the oppressive mindset, he explained. When a dog is a pet, but a pig is “dismembered” and eaten, Hershaft said, that teaches children to “discriminate and oppress.”
He doesn’t intend to belittle human oppression or the Holocaust, but rather draw lessons from it.
He hopes people who hear his story stop eating animals and “start thinking more deeply about the fact that we’re all capable of oppressing other living beings.”
“Oppressing animals is the gateway drug to oppressing humans,” he noted, wearing a tie with an embroidered cow. “As a survivor, I have made a choice. I have chosen against silence. I have chosen against oppression. I have chosen life.”
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