By Sarah Fortinsky and Aileen Graef, CNN
At a rally against vaccine mandates in Washington, DC, on Sunday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. likened vaccine policies in the US to the actions of a totalitarian state, even suggesting Anne Frank was in a better situation when she was hiding from the Nazis.
“Even in Hitler Germany (sic), you could, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did,” said Kennedy, a prominent anti-vaccine advocate, in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. “I visited, in 1962, East Germany with my father and met people who had climbed the wall and escaped, so it was possible. Many died, true, but it was possible.”
Kennedy’s historically inaccurate anti-Semitic remark ignores the fact that Frank and some 6 million other Jews were murdered by Nazis. Frank, who was a teenager at the time, hid in an attic in the Netherlands, not Germany, before she was caught and was sent to a concentration camp, where she died.
The Auschwitz Memorial responded to Kennedy in a statement on Twitter, saying, “Exploiting of the tragedy of people who suffered, were humiliated, tortured & murdered by the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany – including children like Anne Frank – in a debate about vaccines & limitations during global pandemic is a sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay.”
The son of former Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy has a long history of spreading vaccine misinformation.
While there is no national vaccine mandate covering all Americans, various cities around the country, including Washington, have required proof of vaccination for access to many restaurants, bars, gyms and other private businesses. The federal government mandated vaccines for federal workers, but a federal judge in Texas blocked the administration from enforcing it on Friday. The administration’s attempt to mandate vaccines for large businesses was blocked by the US Supreme Court earlier this month, although it allowed a vaccine mandate for certain health care workers to go into effect nationwide. Some businesses have voluntarily mandated vaccines.
Sunday’s event, billed as a protest against vaccine mandates, featured speakers repeatedly spreading misinformation about vaccines and showcased several bigoted comparisons to the Holocaust. At least one man was seen displaying a yellow Star of David, which Jews were required by law to wear as an identifier in Nazi Germany.
While language referencing totalitarianism was common throughout the speeches, references to the Holocaust were found largely on signs, one of which read, “Make the Nuremberg Code great again!” and another read, “Bring back the Nuremberg Trials.” The Nuremberg Code delineated “permissible medical experiments” on human subjects and stated that such experiments must be for the good of society and satisfy moral, ethical and legal concepts. The code was established during the prosecution of German doctors who subjected Jews to torturous medical experiments.
Another sign with clear anti-Semitic sentiments read, “Corrupt, N.I.H., Big Pharma Mafia, Big C.D.C. Cartel; Big Fraud Media: Your circumcision is dividing America! You all have foreskin-blood stained money in your thug hands!!”
Other attendees donned attire and held signs that promoted former President Donald Trump or that attacked President Joe Biden. Many also wore shirts with “Defeat the Mandate,” the name of the event. Organizers secured a National Park Service permit for up to 20,000 people for the event. Protesters started at the Washington Monument and marched to the Lincoln Memorial, where speakers addressed the crowd.
CNN’s Joe Johns spoke to three women — Kim Cogswell, Christina Patterson and Erin Nichols — who traveled from Pennsylvania and Maryland to Washington for what two of them said was their first-ever large-scale protest. They said the lack of freedom is their biggest frustration with vaccine mandates, though none would say confidently they thought the vaccines were safe.
Cogswell said she is a health care worker, “so that has brought me out here due to the issues that I’ve had with my job and my current vaccination status.” Asked what kind of issues, Cogswell said, “Multiple issues with HR and doctors treating me differently and discriminating against me because of my, my choices.”
Patterson said she works in the school system but says she hasn’t faced personal backlash at work for not being vaccinated.
The three vaccines available in the United States are safe and effective at preventing severe Covid-19 illness and death. They were studied in large clinical trials that included thousands of people, and more than 210 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated since the vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks, and it continues to monitor for potential safety issues. Some people experience brief, mild side effects such as headache, muscle pain and swelling at the injection site after vaccination, the CDC says, but serious complications are rare.
In November, the CDC reported that unvaccinated adults had 13 times the risk of testing positive for Covid-19, and 68 times the risk of dying from Covid-19 compared with adults who are fully vaccinated and boosted.
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Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.