What you would you do if, on the eve of a cataclysmic event, your family asked you to leave home because it might be safer elsewhere, even if you don’t know where that elsewhere is? What would you do if you came back days, weeks, months, or even years later, only to find that everyone you knew -- your parents, your sisters and brothers, your nieces and nephews, your friends, your in-laws, your co-workers -- were dead, murdered for nothing more than their ethnicity, culture, or religion? It happened to my grandfather in 1939, it happened to people before that, and it happens to people all around the world today. What would you do in this situation?
In July 2010, Oliver Stone told London’s Sunday Times that “Jewish denomination of the media" led to an “imbalanced” understanding of the Holocaust. He subsequently offered a half-hearted apology, but it is exactly this sort of comment that reminds people why it is so important to have Holocaust education. Quality Holocaust education realizes that while the murder of nine million people (six million of whom, yes, were Jews) is important to discuss because otherwise the victims might be forgotten, it is also important to link it to the world today and place genocide in a larger context. It exposes the moral fault lines that are not always easy to understand.
Holocaust education asks people questions like, “What would you do if you witnessed injustice?” and “How do you internalize social hatred?” (Stone’s father, incidentally, was Jewish.) The goal is to raise awareness of genocide and prevent it from happening.
Holocaust Education Week took place from November 1-9, 2010 in Canada. For the past 30 years, events have been organized by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre of the UJA Federation of Toronto. The week culminates in the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a German-state sponsored pogrom that destroyed Jewish businesses and led to physical assaults on Jews in ”Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia recently occupied by German troops” on November 9 and 10, 1938. Although many anti-Semitic laws and measures had been passed by the Nazi regime before 1938, this was the turning point for what became the ultimate destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Recently, the German Historical Museum opened an exhibit examining how “how ordinary Germans not only accepted but often also celebrated and idolized the Fuhrer. It also shows how the Nazi's racist ideology seeped deeply into popular culture and everyday life with playing cards with Hitler on them, Nazi board games, Third Reich quilts and swastika party lanterns all on display, NPR reported. While Germany has been remarkably open in exploring how the Holocaust came to happen, many other countries are not willing to admit they’ve done wrong, either directly or indirectly, in many situations. For example, did you know that the US State Department purposely blocked Jews from coming to America, not unlike how it has discriminated against Haitians seeking asylum? (There is an excellent article on how Labor Secretary Frances Perkins did her best to overcome stereotypes and anti-Semitism to save German Jews in the 1930s.) Holocaust education teaches things like this.
It helps people understand why it is wrong to call people you disagree with Nazis (or Stalinists or Tonton Macoutes or Khmer Rouge). It is hard to use such labels so casually when one really understands the devastation wreaked by genocidal parties. To compare George Bush or Obama to Hitler undermines the true evil of Hitler’s deeds and desensitizes people over time to what happened. Holocaust education makes it clear why this is.
If we had more Holocaust education, maybe people would not allow fear to dictate their behaviors and do things like protest the construction of mosques in their communities. Maybe they would demand that Turkey acknowledge what happened to the Armenians in 1915, the Serbs take responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre of Muslims, and the Sudanese government stop the ongoing tragedy in Darfur and southern Sudan, among other atrocities that don't even come close to comparing to national health insurance because it is sick to even think in those terms.
As Facing History and Ourselves explains, “By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.” This is the only way to break the cycle. There are already too many people who have been killed, and too many scarred survivors. Holocaust education shouldn’t be just a week, but something we learn and think about all the time.
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