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Education about the Holocaust

(Reposted to this site on 9/15/2006)

Education about the Holocaust:
How Does It Help Build a Better World?
Address to Annual Conference of the Association of Holocaust Organizations
June 8, 2004

by Jerry Fowler
Staff Director
Committee on Conscience
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


It is a tremendous honor to be here and to have the opportunity to speak with you today. I’m particularly grateful to Bill Schulman for having invited me and for his tremendous leadership in our Holocaust remembrance community.

And I really believe we are a community, with a broadly shared sense of mission. I wanted to begin by speaking briefly about that mission.

Quite simply, it is to keep and preserve the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and pass that memory – and their stories – from generation to generation. That’s what we are doing at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and what so many of you are doing at Holocaust organizations around the country.

One challenge we face at the Museum, and that anyone faces who seeks to teach about the Holocaust, is how to take the enormity – the absolute enormity of the Holocaust – and convey its human element. Take the utter incomprehensibility of 6 million murders, and help people see, truly, what was lost – the individuals, the communities.

As you know, we seek to meet that challenge by putting faces to the Holocaust, by telling specific stories. And we tell many different types of stories. We tell stories about victims, of course, and about perpetrators.

For example, we have what we call the Tower of Faces – three levels of pictures from one shtetl in Lithuania, pictures that depict the life of the community. Photographs of weddings and vacations and classes graduating from school. Families at the beach, families at dinner. A girl shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. All from one little town where Jews had lived for 900 years, until two horrible days in 1941 when the SS shot almost every single inhabitant.

There are stories of resistance in our Museum, both obvious, such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and more subtle, such as the Ringelblum milkcan. I find the milkcan to be one of the most moving artifacts in the whole exhibition. In the Warsaw Ghetto, the historian Emanuel Ringelblum led an effort to record and document all aspects of ghetto life. He and his colleagues collected official decrees, examples of documents, diaries – anything that would be useful for somebody in the future who would want to understand what it had been like to live in the ghetto. And as the Ghetto was finally being liquidated, they buried everything in three milkcans.

What an incredible act – as everything they had and everything they knew was being annihilated, they made this gesture to the future with – with what? the belief, the hope, the prayer – that someday the record would be recovered by somebody who would care. And after the war, two of the three milkcans were found. And one is on display for the millions who visit our Museum.

We also tell stories about rescuers, such as Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who with courage, cunning and sheer bravado saved thousands and thousands of Hungarian Jews from extermination, sixty years ago this year.

In the background of all these stories is another category of people, the category that actually was the largest in terms of just absolute numbers – bystanders, those who witnessed what was happening and did nothing.

Sometimes, they are just figures in a photograph, silently watching the deportation of their neighbors. Sometimes, the story is more elaborate, such as the St. Louis, a ship with 930 German and Austrian Jews on board that was turned away by Cuban authorities in 1939. Then they floated off the coast of Florida, pleading for refuge. The passengers could actually see the lights of Miami. But they were denied permission to land in the United States, and over 230 of the St. Louis passengers ultimately perished in the Holocaust.

Shaike Weinberg, the visionary genius behind the Museum’s exhibition, once commented to a colleague, “This exhibition is about bystanders, and it is for bystanders.”

And that brings me to a central question: Why do we tell these stories? What do we hope to accomplish? And how do these stories change those who hear them?

The first answer is that we tell these stories to honor those who died and those who survived. And by telling the stories we deny the perpetrators the ultimate victory they sought – that their victims would be forgotten, that they literally would disappear from human memory. That victory we will not allow them. We are fulfilling the hopes that Emmanuel Ringelblum and so many others had. To remember.

Another answer to the question, why we tell these stories, can perhaps by gathered by actually telling a story – a story that begins with the day eleven years this week ago that the Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated. That day was bitterly cold in Washington and wet with rain. I know some of you were there.

Thousands attended the opening – Holocaust survivors, veterans of the armies that liberated the concentration camps, heads of state from around the world, a large portion of the diplomatic corps, most members of the United States Congress and the newly inaugurated President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

Even as this august crowd gathered to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, the scourge of genocide – and by that I mean the intentional, physical destruction of a group – once again was threatening Europe. Former Yugoslavia had disintegrated. The battle for Bosnia was underway. Images of emaciated men behind barbed wire had been broadcast around the world, and the euphemistic term “ethnic cleansing” had entered the world’s lexicon.

On that bitter April day, Elie Wiesel gave the keynote address, and he told of a young Jewish woman in the Carpathian Mountains of Hungary who 50 years earlier read a brief account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. “‘Why,’ she said, ‘are our Jewish brothers doing that? . . . Couldn’t they wait quietly’ – the word was quietly – ‘until the end of the war?’” She didn’t know, Wiesel said, of names like Treblinka or Belzec or Birkenau. Yet a year later, she and her family were being deported to Auschwitz.

But the names that the young Jewish woman did not know, others did: “Mr. President and distinguished guests, [Wiesel said] these names were known to officials in Washington, and London, and Moscow, and Stockholm, and Geneva, and the Vatican. After all, by April 1943, nearly 4 million Jews from surrounding countries had already vanished . . . . The Pentagon knew, the State Department knew, the White House knew, most governments knew.” And Wiesel recited an anguished litany of questions. Why were the Hungarian Jews not warned? Why were the railways to Birkenau not bombed? Why was there no public outcry? Why were the fighters in the Warsaw ghetto and other ghettos not aided, not even encouraged? “And for me, [he said] a man who grew up in a religion, the Jewish religion, a man who his entire life thought that God is everywhere, how is it that man’s silence was matched by God’s?”

Wiesel offered no answers. Indeed, he said there are no answers. Nor did he consider the Museum to be an answer: “It is a question. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.”

By the time that Wiesel neared the end of his address, his prepared text had been rendered useless by the rain. His face pinched from the cold, he turned to address President Clinton directly. “Mr. President,” he said, “I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since, for what I have seen. As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.” To conclude, to bind this plea tightly with all he had said before, he offered “just one more remark. The woman in the Carpathian Mountains of whom I spoke to you, [he said] that woman disappeared. She was my mother.”

In speaking first of the Holocaust, then the notion of responsibility, then bearing witness to the threat of genocide in Bosnia, Wiesel was echoing something that he and the original President’s Commission on the Holocaust had told President Jimmy Carter in 1979, when they first recommended creation of a national Holocaust memorial. They told President Carter – a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.

A memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past. There is an obligation there, they were saying, imposed by memory. Thus, the President’s Commission recommended that the living memorial to Holocaust victims include a Committee on Conscience to speak out on threats of contemporary genocide.

That notion of responding to the future is ultimately at the heart of why we teach about the Holocaust.

In the particular, unique stories of the Holocaust, there are compelling universal themes.

We learn something fundamental about human nature and the whole range of human behavior from unimaginable evil to extraordinary goodness.

In the stories that our Museum tells, we see the consequences of apathy and inaction, we see a particular case of how governments, institutions, and individuals stood by and did little or nothing as the most virulent form of anti-Semitism was propagated and acted upon until it led to the near extermination of European Jewry as well as the persecution and murder of millions of others.

But the Holocaust also suggests – suggests – the potential for individuals, groups, and nations to respond to and confront those who advocate hatred, who espouse anti-Semitism, who promote racism, who use violence, who violate human rights and who commit genocide.

But even so.

Even so.

Can teaching about the Holocaust really make a difference? Is it anything more than a futile exercise to find some light in a darkness that is purely, irredeemably evil?

The writer Cynthia Ozick once criticized what she called “an urge . . . in the direction of redemption” that she perceived in discussions of the Holocaust. “Let us get some good out of this, we tell ourselves, let us look for spots of goodness on the rump of evil,” she said. She termed that view unacceptable. In thinking about the Holocaust, she said, “we have to take into ourselves a different possibility, an alien thesis: one that we have never been taught, one that goes against our moral grain, that seems overwhelmingly indigestible and repugnant. It is that this time, there was no redemption . . . .” She goes on to assert that “we cannot pry redemption out of events that are in their nature not amenable to redemption. . . . . ‘Never Again’ is not the message we get from the Holocaust [she said]. The message we get is that the Holocaust will replicate itself. . . . What was acceptable once will be acceptable again.”

What was acceptable once will be acceptable again. The utter darkness into which so many disappeared is so deep, so black, that we must give weight to Cynthia Ozick’s warning. And we must avoid the temptation to “pry redemption” out of that darkness merely as a false comfort to ourselves in our seeming safety.

But I think she goes too far, giving to the darkness an inevitability that renders us powerless, stripping from us for all time any choice. Certainly, what has happened once can happen again. We know that is true. But what she says is it will happen again and again and again for all eternity.

What I believe, with all my heart and soul, is that in that space between what can happen and what will happen is where we stand. And what we do, what we choose, quite simply, whether we stand by or stand up, can make all the difference in the world. And learning about the Holocaust makes crystal clear the consequences of standing in that space, the consequences of choices that are made.

And this idea of choice conjures a very specific memory for me. Many years ago I was stationed in Germany, near Nuremberg, as a member of the U.S. Army. One summer, I volunteered to help with the American military community’s Special Olympics for its children. I’m sure everyone is familiar with Special Olympics, which seeks to empower individuals with intellectual disabilities to become productive and respected members of society.

Well, we held the Special Olympics in Nuremberg at the same vast stadium where the Nazis held their huge party rallies in the 1930s. I know you’ve seen old newsreels of it. Torchlights, banners, uniforms, Hitler at the speaking stand.

And that’s where we held our Special Olympics. Special Olympics. The Nazis wanted to exterminate handicapped kids because they were “useless eaters,” “life unworthy of life.” And we have Special Olympics. And those two very different outcomes were the products of choices that people – individuals and groups – made.

One set of choices led to Auschwitz, the other to Special Olympics. What people choose makes a difference. We can build a better world, if we choose to.

I think ultimately that is what people learn about when they learn about the Holocaust. They learn that choices have consequences – including the choice to do nothing. Apathy and indifference in the face of anti-Semitism, and racism, and other forms of hatred and violence, and of attempts to divide humans one from the other, have consequences.

Ervin Staub was young boy in Hungary who was rescued by Raoul Wallenberg. Today, he is a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has written a classic work about the Holocaust called The Roots of Evil. In it, he asks, as a psychologist, how did this happen? In a chapter on bystanders, he explained that

[b]ystanders, people who witness but are not directly affected by the actions of perpetrators, help shape society by their reactions. . . . They can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy or indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity or participation in the system they can affirm the perpetrators.

That is a powerful truth he has articulated: “People who witness . . . help shape society by their reactions . . . . They can promote values and norms of caring, or . . . they can affirm the perpetrators.

He’s talking in particular about persecution and violence. But it applies to the whole range of social interaction. People who witness help shape society by their reactions. What we do, whether we act or remain indifferent, has an effect on those around us.

In the main hall of the Holocaust Museum is inscribed a passage from the book of Isaiah, “You are my witnesses.” This passage works on several levels. Most obviously, it is underscoring the fact that visitors to the Museum are themselves becoming witnesses to the enormity of the Holocaust.

It also echoes the explanation that General Dwight Eisenhower gave for insisting on visiting newly liberated camps. “I made the visit deliberately,” he said, “in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.” Witness, in other words, protects against the distortion or denial of history.

Finally, the passage from Isaiah is a challenge – it’s a challenge – using the present tense to imply a continuing obligation on all of us to bear witness – to the crimes and injustice of today as well as the crimes and injustice of yesterday. And as Professor Staub says, “People who witness help shape society by their reactions.”

What we do today and in the future, whether we stand up for positive values or stand by and do nothing, will help shape and define our society.

We are witnesses to our world, and as witnesses, we have a choice – the choice of promoting values and norms of caring or the choice of affirming injustice.

Remembering the Holocaust, learning about the Holocaust, helps us make the choice. It is a powerful, powerful spur to promote values and norms of caring.

Samantha Power of Harvard University recently won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for her book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide. In discussing Rwanda, she asks the basic question: Why did the U.S. do nothing to stop the Rwanda genocide? Her answer:

One reason is that all possible sources of pressure – U.S. allies, Congress, editorial boards, and the American people – were mute when it mattered for Rwanda. American leaders have a circular and deliberate relationship to public opinion. It is circular because public opinion is rarely if ever aroused by foreign crises, even genocidal ones, in the absence of political leadership, and yet at the same time, American leaders continually cite the absence of public support as grounds for inaction.

Holocaust remembrance can play an important role in breaking this circle of inaction that Power describes, and breaking it must be our long term goal. (And we cannot lose heart because it takes the long term in order to achieve it.) In the name of remembrance, and with all the moral authority it entails, we must prod political leaders to exercise leadership – to respond to genocide and threats of genocide, and convince the American people that it is the right thing to do.

But we also can and must work on the other side of the relationship. Holocaust remembrance can help create a “constituency of conscience” that is aroused by threats of genocide in the present and future, that demands action to stop mass murder, that holds to account policymakers who temporize.

The writer Michael Ignatieff, reflecting in 1995 on Bosnia and Rwanda, commented that

what needs to be understood more clearly – however pessimistic the implications – is that when conscience is the only linkage between rich and poor, North and South, zones of safety and zones of danger, it is a weak link indeed.

He is right. It is a weak link, but it is indeed a link, and one that can be strengthened – must be strengthened – by the act of remembrance. We should always look for other links – whether they are ones of geopolitics or group identity or basic economic interest.

But even when these do not exist or are themselves weak, the link of conscience can still be there, because conscience, and the amplified voice of the constituency of conscience that I envision, can have an impact on how the threat of genocide is perceived by policymakers and by the society at large.

But as Elie Wiesel said, ultimately remembering the Holocaust presents us more with questions than with answers, so please allow me to conclude with a question to you.

The Museum’s Committee on Conscience has issued a genocide warning for Sudan, Africa’s largest country. It is a complex situation, and you can learn more about it at our website, www.committeeonconscience.org. But simply stated, in the western Darfur region of the country, people are being attacked because of their racial and ethnic identity. Already, tens of thousands have died, close to a million have been driven from their homes. The U.S. government is saying that as many as 350,000 may die in the coming months because of the violence.

Last month, I went to neighboring Chad to interview refugees who fled the violence. What I saw and heard haunts me still. I’ll share just one story with you. I was sitting in a small makeshift shelter in Iridimi refugee camp, talking to a woman named Hawa Salahdin. Hawa’s four kids and an older neighbor, as well as my translator, were crammed in there with us. Outside, it was about 115 degrees. Inside, it was oppressive.

Hawa told me about the day her village was attacked. Her father was killed, and her brother and her cousin. Thirty other people were killed in her village that day. And her mother disappeared. I took all of this in. When we were finished, I thanked her for sharing her story with me. As I started to go, she began talking in a low voice. I looked at her, and tears were splashing down her cheeks. She said, “What about my mother? What about my mother? I don’t know where my mother is, I don’t even know if she’s dead or if she’s alive.”

What could I say to her? I could only say, “tell me your mother’s name, and I will take her name back and tell people about her.” Her mother’s name is Hadiya Ahmed. Hawa doesn’t know if she’s dead or alive, and she probably won’t know until peace and security are brought to Darfur. Darfur is about one million people at risk of dying. It is also about finding out what happened to one woman’s mother.

Hearing about this, knowing all we know about the Holocaust, how will we respond?

Thank you.