Early in life, I learned the unambiguous and powerful words “Never again.” I actually thought the expression would create a new human ethic that would never again allow human beings to be systematically murdered for their religious, ethnic, national or racial identities. I was wrong.
I was not alive during the Holocaust, but I learned that the United States was a bystander and chose not to intervene, not to attempt to save millions of lives during the Holocaust. On the other hand, I was an adult, with what I thought was a developed social awareness, during the nightmare of Rwanda in 1994. Yet, I did not do anything. I was a bystander. I have heard so many times since then that just a few phone calls might have made an impact on the White House or on Congress.
In 2003, I started to learn about the unfolding genocide in Darfur. I felt, as a human being and as a Jew, a deep responsibility to act in some way that might make a difference. I spent Yom Kippur of 2004 in Darfuri refugee camps in eastern Chad. This was the first of several trips to that region, including Darfur and South Sudan. Sitting in these refugee camps, I bore witness to the greatest of human suffering and to the incomprehensible brutality and human degradation that can be inflicted upon other human beings.
Why do I now teach Holocaust and Genocide? I teach because of my meeting with Adam Mussa in the Kuonongo refugee camp. A native Darfuri and a teacher who speaks English, he fled with his wife and children from their home in a village that had been pillaged and burned, and walked hundreds of miles to the isolated desert of eastern Chad. I could see on Adam’s face his pain, and the horror that he and his family and friends had lived through. Yet, I heard in his words a person of hope, courage and an extraordinary desire to still believe in the goodness of human beings. He later wrote to me: “I believe that the day will come when we will be home. Our gratitude to those who care about us.” Adam still is not home. I teach so that my students can learn about Adam and grapple with this question: In what way are we responsible to other human beings?
I teach because of A-7603, Dora Sorell. She is a Romanian-born woman who in her late teens spent seven months in Auschwitz. At 93, she continues to speak throughout the Bay Area about her experiences. Dora is filled with life. Her words bring the nightmare to life — and challenge us to ask piercing questions about our own resolve to integrate her story, and those of millions of others, into our lives. Stories that will motivate us to never stand idly by. As the last re-maining survivors die off, we have an enormous challenge to teach the Holocaust.
I teach because of Wilita Sanguma and the horrors he lived through in the Congo. He speaks about Christmas Day 1998 when his church was attacked and his world changed forever. He and his family became homeless wanderers. Today, Wilita is in his mid-20s and has seen more brutality than is imaginable. He lives every day with the fact that 6 million human beings have died in the Congo and that the world barely cares. When I hear him describe the smell that is embedded in his memory of a village and human beings burning alive, I ask myself: Can this really still be happening? Wilita, now living in San Francisco, is still optimistic, focused on his career and committed to helping the people of his homeland. What his story brings home so clearly is something we already know so well; we certainly did not mean “Never again.” It is a vapid expression of human inadequacy.
I teach Holocaust and Genocide to bring to life the many people who have been rescuers. They are people who listen to their own consciences and not to what the world tells them is right. They do not see their acts as heroic, but rather as the way that human beings are supposed to act — actions that make us human.
Most of all, I teach Holocaust and Genocide because I will never give up the belief that our world can be different. These are more than history lessons. They are a lens into the depravity and the goodness of human beings. I teach this painful subject because it raises the question of what it means to be human, to have a conscience, to get involved and not to stand idly by, as well as to help emphasize the importance of nurturing our empathy, our moral courage and our humanity.
I teach so that we can become aware, we can become engaged and we can act in ways that will make a difference. My hope is that we can breathe new life into the words “Never again.”
Rabbi Lee Bycel is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco’s Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa. He is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council but the views expressed here are solely his own.