By the Vegan Staff Network
On Holocaust Memorial Day, the Vegan Network is raising awareness of survivor Dr Alex Hershaft, who has made incredible strides in the animal rights movement during his lifetime.
Dr Hershaft has a powerful story we can learn from. He was five when he and his family were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, along with 450,000 other Warsaw Jews. He and his mother escaped and survived. The rest of his family did not.
Hershaft, who serves on the Advisory Council of Jewish Veg, claims he decided that rather than live the rest of his life as a victim, he would devote it to fighting oppression so that his family, and all the other millions of people, would not have died in vain.
Thirty years after the war, Hershaft, a chemical engineer living in the States and struggling with survivor guilt, was assigned to do a wastewater study of a slaughterhouse. The facility was piled with bones and bodies — all part of the process, part of the job. In the same way, he realised, the bones and bodies of millions killed in concentration camps were all part of the job.
To slaughter means mass killing, in a cruel or violent way. What chilled Hershaft wasn’t just the cruelty of the slaughterhouse but the callousness that keeps the system going — and our tacit participation in it. He says:
“Oppression can have many victims. Animals are the most vulnerable, sentient beings on earth – and therefore the most oppressed. Every time we eat animals, we support the greatest oppression in history.”
This belief led Hershaft to become vegan in 1981, and go on to create Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) and initiatives including the Animals Rights National Conference. A believer in grassroots activism, Hershaft prefers action to prayer, or perhaps action is prayer for him. He began a personal tradition in 1983, his annual fast on behalf of animals. Thousands of people have joined the fast each year. For Hershaft, though, the fast remains a personal thing, saying: “You don’t have to miss a meal to usher in the New Year meaningfully. Do it by dropping animals from the menu.”
When asked about what influenced him the most in his decision to devote his life to animal rights and veganism, Hershaft said:
“I noted the many similarities between how the Nazis treated us and how we treat animals, especially those raised for food. Among these are the use of cattle cars for transport and crude wood crates for housing, the cruel treatment and deception about impending slaughter, the processing efficiency and emotional detachments of the perpetrators, and the piles of assorted body parts – mute testimonials to the victims they were once a part of.”
He talks about the negative reaction he sometimes sees from comparing human suffering to animal suffering, but explains that this is “largely due to people’s mistaken perception that the comparison values their lives equally with those of pigs and cows. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What we are doing is pointing to the commonality and pervasiveness of the oppressive mindset, which enables human beings to perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on other living beings, whether they be Jews, Bosnians, Tutsis, or animals. It’s the mindset that allowed German and Polish neighbours of extermination camps to go on with their lives, just as we continue to subsidize the oppression of animals at the supermarket checkout counter. I am convinced that if the oppression of animals is no longer accepted, other forms of violence will disappear”.
If we are to end all forms of oppression, we must listen to and learn from survivors like Dr. Hershaft. There is no time like now to make a difference.
Interested to hear more from Dr. Hershaft? Watch one of his powerful speeches below, or visit his website alexhershaft.com.