On Tuesday, September 23rd, Redditors were riveted by a very special “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) with FARM’s co-founder and President, Dr. Alex Hershaft. Opening up the Internet floor to questions about his experiences during the Holocaust and how they led him to form the animal rights movement in the United States, Dr. Hershaft opened many eyes, hearts, and minds with his deeply moving stories and insights on how animals are treated in society. Below are just a few highlights from this thought provoking question-and-answer session on Reddit.com.
Dr. Hershaft spoke candidly about his experience in Warsaw and the parallels between what he went through and what farmed animals go through.
“I was born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 1, 1934 to fairly assimilated Jewish parents Jozef and Sabina Herszaft. My mother was a mathematician, and my father was a chemist researching the properties of heavy water (used as a coolant for nuclear reactors) at University of Warsaw with his partner Jozef Rotblat.
“Their research was in great demand, as Western scientists began to recognize the potential of harnessing nuclear energy, and both received visas to continue their work in the U.K. and the U.S. Rotblat left for the U.K just before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and eventually received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for his subsequent opposition to nuclear weapons. My father insisted on visas for my mother and I, but those came too late.
“During the war, our family was forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto, with my mother’s parents, across the street from the infamous Pawiak prison. As the Nazis began liquidating the Ghetto in late 1942, sending inmates to the Treblinka death camp, we were able to escape to the Christian side and remain in hiding. My father was tragically caught and presumed murdered. My mother and I were liberated by the allies in the spring of 1945.”
“… I find 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.”
When asked about his feelings toward Germans, Dr. Hershaft replied, “I try not to hold hard feelings toward the German people. Their society committed unspeakable acts against innocent sentient beings because of six years of intense indoctrination by the Nazi hierarchy. Our society commits similar acts against innocent, sentient being because of indoctrination by the meat industry.”
One Redditor asked, “Did you ever experience any uplifting moments while living in the Ghetto or was everyday a nightmare?”
Dr. Hershaft replied, “We tried to introduce some normalcy to life by setting up schools, cultural centers, and even a symphony orchestra. Then there were acts of supreme heroism, as when Janusz Korczak, head of a local orphanage, stayed with his children as they were lead to the gas chambers, even though he could have saved himself.”
This deeply moved many readers, some of whom responded:
“This made me stop reading for a while, what a great father and man.”
“I just had to excuse myself to go cry in the bathroom. What a touching story and a brave man. Thank you for sharing these meaningful moments.”
Another Redditor asked, “What were you doing right before you were liberated? Can words even describe what it felt like to be liberated?”
“We were liberated by the Russian army in February of 1945. People were lining the streets, cheering, and throwing flowers at the Russian tanks. It was like getting a new lease on life. I still tear up thinking about it,” Dr. Hershaft resplied.
Many people asked about the acceptability of comparing farmed animal suffering to the Holocaust.
“The analogy must be introduced very carefully, if at all,” Hershaft explained. “People are apt to misperceive it as us equating the value a Jewish life to that a pig’s life. The truth is that the analogy has nothing to do with the identity, religion, ethnicity, or even the species of the victim and everything to do with the commonality and operation of the oppressive mindset. Oppression of other sentient living beings must be detected and eradicated wherever it rears its ugly head. By focusing on the most oppressed sentient living beings on earth, we hope to blaze a path to ending all forms of oppression against all living, sentient beings, including of course, humans. It’s all part of the same struggle.”
Another interesting question posed was, “What would you say the most significant difference between US animal rights is today and what it was like when you began fighting in the name of them?”
“33 years after our movement’s launch at the first Action For Life Conference in 1981, our movement has grown much larger, more sophisticated, and more influential. In the process, it has lost some of its early idealism and solidarity. It has seen profound changes in focus, tactics, and leadership.
“Prior to 1981, animal right activity in the U.S. was pretty much restricted to one book – Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” a crude newsletter called “Animals Agenda,” a college student club called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and a lone (though powerful) activist – Henry Spira. The several animal protection and anti-vivisection organizations that had been around for a while were busy curbing abuses of animal companions and animals in laboratories, rather than promoting animal rights and veganism.
“The focus began to shift in the mid 1990s, when Henry Spira dropped his anti-vivisection campaigns in favor of animals raised for food. Compassion Over Killing joined the battle in 1995, and Bruce Friedrich turned PETA’s focus onto farmed animals in 1996. The Farm Sanctuary and United Poultry Concerns sanctuaries took on more of an advocacy role around that time.
“With our movement’s rapid growth, dozens of dedicated volunteers were necessarily replaced by hundreds of employees in corporate offices, with varying degrees of allegiance to animal rights. This, in turn, has led to vastly reduced contact and solidarity among movement activists. Fortunately, we are seeing the most drastic progress for farmed animals than we have ever before seen.”
Many Redditors were amazed to learn that Dr. Hershaft turned 80 years old this year.
“Woah dude, 80 years old? You look extremely young. I would honestly put you at 40 years old. I’m dead serious. You age fantastically. I don’t have a question, but damn man, good for you for looking so damn good at 80 years old,” said one impressed Redditor.
“I was going to say the same thing, you look younger than my 64 year old father,” said another.
“Thank you,” Dr. Hershaft replied. “I’d like to believe it’s due to my vegan diet and daily fitness regiment.”
Hershaft has certainly been eating his veggies for a long time. To another poster, he replied, “I actually became vegetarian in 1961 in Israel, but didn’t go vegan till 1981, because there was so little information about the abuse of animals and the health and environmental benefits of veganism. Veganism was virtually unknown in 1961, became somewhat known in 1976, and embraced by a respectable minority by 1981.”
Some questions popped up regarding “humane meat” and “humane slaughter,” with Redditors asking if that was acceptable or something that Hershaft/FARM supports. Hershaft’s response echoes that of FARM: “I don’t believe that raising of animals for food can be labeled ‘humane.’ For example, chickens are still acquired from a breeder who has killed all the males by grinding them up or suffocating them in plastic garbage bags. Cows have to be impregnated to keep up their milk production and their babies are killed for veal. The cows themselves are killed at a relatively young age, when their milk production drops. There is nothing humane about that.” In response to another, similar question: “Because those of us with access to grocery stores, fresh produce, and convenient plant-based proteins do not need to eat animals to survive, I deem nearly all consumption of animals in the Western world to be unnecessary exploitation. Putting effort into treating animals better when we can simply stop eating them strikes me as a gross misuse of time.”
With THOUSANDS of questions and comments in this AMA, meaningful and thought-provoking discussions were had, with many people more interested in exploring a vegan diet. While the AMA is closed now, you can still read all of the discussions HERE. Also, check out a recording of Dr. Hershaft’s speaking engagement, “From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Fight for Animal Rights,” which happened in Pittsburgh last month. Thank you to Dr. Hershaft for opening up so many eyes, hearts, and minds by sharing his incredible experiences.