Everybody has a family narrative or childhood story to tell. Elizabeth Warren’s is about her Native American ancestor; my mother’s about her German Jewish neighbor. And while Elizabeth Warren’s ancestor remains elusive, my mother’s neighbor and what I heard about him growing up has become more concrete over the years. It literally became concrete when in 2005 a Stolperstein (stumbling stone) bearing his name was installed in front of the house he had owned before he was deported and murdered in Theresienstadt.

Sally Cohen’s Stolperstein in Remscheid, North Rhine-Westphalia

Here is the story my mother told me. It was in late 1941 when she noted that Sally Cohen, an older gentleman and respected citizen (so she thought) had to wait in the corner of the neighborhood bakery store until everybody else was served. She also noted that he was now wearing a monstrous star-shaped yellow badge that said, “Jude.” My mother was 11 at the time and to this day hasn’t forgotten the sad and embarrassed look on Herr Cohen’s face. When she asked the adults why Herr Cohen was treated that way, she was told not to worry and that all of this was mandated by a new law.

The notion that everything in the Third Reich was done “according to the law” has always puzzled me. By voting for the Enabling Act in March 1933, the democratic parties had abdicated, more or less voluntarily, and transferred absolute power to the government. Hitler was free to write laws as he pleased and as perverse as he and his legal experts wanted them to be. Legal experts? Browsing through the “Who’s Who” of Hitler’s helpers it is astounding to see how many career-obsessed academics and law scholars were willing to sell their soul to the Nazis for the prospect of landing a prestigious job or professorship. In many cases, these positions opened up because they had been held by Jews who were forced to resign. One of the most notorious Nazi apologists was Carl Schmitt who called the Nuremberg Race Laws a “constitution of freedom” because “they freed Germany from the un-German concept of liberalism and equality.”

Find that outrageous? In an interview with the Financial Times, Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin called liberalism “obsolete” the other day. Viktor Orbán proudly promotes his “illiberal democracy” model in Hungary and gets applause from fellow wannabe dictators in Italy and other European countries. And in the US, self-declared nationalist and Brexit fan Donald Trump has surrounded himself with people like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo who don’t like liberalism either, at least not the 21st-century version that offers asylum to immigrants and marriage to same-sex couples. Well, they can’t recruit Carl Schmitt anymore to rewrite human rights law, but they can always copy and paste from the Bible. This is what Pompeo’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights seems to have in mind when they talk about reducing human rights to God-given or “natural rights.” I am guessing the human right to healthcare will be off the table too, since there is no mention of health insurance in the New Testament and resurrection from the dead is guaranteed anyway. God-given rights and natural law have been used to legally camouflage mankind’s most horrific actions including slavery, the crusades, and the Thirty Years’ War that left a third of central Europe’s population dead. Not to forget Gottesgnadentum (the divine right of kings) which would come in really handy for Pompeo’s boss if he wants to transition from a 4-year job to a life-time appointment.

Hitler also claimed that the “divinely ordained law of nature” was at the heart of Nazi ideology and jurisdiction and never got tired to enlist the support of the Almighty in his speeches. Alas, the law is only as good as the people who make or interpret it. I keep wondering if all the adults in that bakery store in 1941 really thought the Nuremberg Race Laws were “good” or if they were just rationalizing their guilty conscience away by pointing to the law. Children apparently sensed that something was fundamentally wrong. After Sally Cohen and his wife were deported in 1942, the official word was that they were “resettled to the East.” His textile and fabric store was confiscated by the Nazis and sold for very little money to his former competitors. For them, I assume, there was no question that it was a “good” law.

A tablecloth from Sally Cohen’s store. It survived the 1943 air raid in the basement of the author’s grandparents

In the summer of 1943, my grandparents’ house and the bakery next to it burned to the ground during a bombing raid by the Allies. There were only a few things that survived the fire because they were stored behind a steel door in the basement. Among them is a table cloth that has never been used and still has the store’s label and handwritten price tag attached to it. It is from Sally Cohen’s store. Occasionally I take it out of the drawer, look at it and have a hard time trying to wrap my head around the past and the present.

Henning Schroeder is a former vice provost and dean of graduate education and currently a professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Minnesota. He’s at schro601@umn.edu. On Twitter: @HenningSchroed1.

Note: A longer story about Sally Cohen and his home can be found here (in German), produced by the Historical Society of Bergisches-Land