Living in wildfire-prone Northern California, I keep my emergency to-go bag near my front door, stuffed full of my most valuable and critical possessions: computer hard drive, cash, jewelry, birth certificates and an old photograph of my relatives in Grodno taken a few years before they were murdered by the Nazis.
Wherever I have lived, this photograph has lived with me; a sepia picture hung prominently in my home. My family’s faces etched into my memory.
Though I never knew them, it is my promise to their memory that they will never be forgotten. And as I grow older, I notice how average they look. Just another family struggling to provide for their children while making the best of their circumstances. Their normality is universal, but their genocidal demise was particular to the Jewish people.
As a Jewish woman, I have received a glimmer of hope — in a world faced with rising anti-Semitism, extremism and intolerance — with the passage of the Never Again Education Act, which provides $10 million over five years for teaching about the Holocaust. The bill was passed easily by the House in January and unanimously by the Senate in May before being signed into law late last month.
Teaching about the Holocaust involves so much more than teaching about death and the numbers of those who died. Teaching about the Holocaust requires teaching about how people can be manipulated by their base instincts of greed and then need to feel superior, and leaders willing to exploit evil impulses.
Though Hitler was uniquely driven to obliterate the entire Jewish people, fanatical hatred consumed others deemed “undesirable,” as well — the differently abled, the Romani people, political opponents, non-heterosexuals , non-Jewish Poles, Soviet Prisoners of war. As the Holocaust grew, so did the list of people allegedly deserving to be murdered in the most horrific ways. What starts with the Jews never stops with the Jews.
I wish we had the Never Again Education Act when I was in high school, when my history teacher, Mr. Gabel, announced to the class that “Jews went like sheep to the slaughter.” I sat in my seat and could feel my face flush.
I wish I had a teacher who would understand and teach us that Jews had absolutely nowhere to go — especially not to the United States, with the reams of paperwork and documents required of fleeing refugees. Or how in 1939, German Jews fleeing Hitler on the “Voyage of the Damned” came close enough to our great country to see the flickering lights of Miami, but our country refused to let the ship dock and the refugees were forced to return to Germany, where many were murdered in concentration camps.
Students of all ages deserve to be taught the truth in age-appropriate ways in these days of Holocaust denial (in which the term “Holohoax” has become commonplace). Not even Jews being gunned down or stabbed to death in synagogue stops the minimization of the realities of anti-Semitism. Teaching about the Holocaust is more important than ever if we really mean “never again.”
Because when we say “never again,” we are saying “never again to any people.” I want to honor my family’s memory by teaching children to appreciate differences and that words do matter. Because when we use words that denigrate others because of some perceived abnormality, our words can be used to desensitize us. Because when our minds are desensitized, we more easily act in ways that are hurtful.
The lessons of the Holocaust are universal and can be applied to current events. I am not implying that the Holocaust will happen again, or want to engage in an argument over which people’s suffering was worse.
That is not the point.
The point is that we need to understand the dangerous place we humans of free will end up when we are led and manipulated by ignorance, fear and greed.
We need to check ourselves (and perhaps our prejudices) by viewing political events through the lessons of the Holocaust to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
In the immortal words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, children have to be “carefully taught to hate.” Unfortunately, in our world of internet access and social media, today’s children are exposed to more hatred and extremist views than are imaginable.
It is up to each one of us to ensure that our children are exposed to truth and critical thinking, and that schools and educators are provided with the resources they need to counteract this counterculture of evil.
As a Jewish woman, I made the promise to never forget my ancestors, a promise that is being kept by my actions to support Holocaust education — not just for the benefit of those who died, but for the benefit of all living people.