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Harriet L. Cohen, PhD, MSW

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Lessons from Holocaust Survivors: Stand Up to Hatred

Posted: 06/13/2012 2:19 pm

On June 12, 1942, Anne Frank received an empty notebook as a gift for her 13th birthday. When she started writing entries into her diary, she never thought it would be published in 67 different languages for a global audience numbering in the millions, teaching people about the consequences of discrimination, intolerance, and xenophobia.

Nevertheless, it remains one of the most widely read books of all time and helps personalize the most inhumane era in modern history. Thesimple writing of a teenage girl has been taught in classrooms across the world to expose younger children to a subject incomprehensible by even the most mature adults. For some, the Diary of Anne Frank may be their first, and perhaps only, exposure to the history of the Holocaust.

Who can imagine gas chambers and crematoriums, inventions created with the sole purpose of eliminating human life? Who can picture the 6 million Jews or 11 million total population who died as a result of them? Who would want to?

But we must not forget about these horrific acts, committed by human beings. We have a responsibility to ensure that nothing comparable can happen again. But now 70 years after Anne's first entry, it's hard to believe there remains such unspeakable hatred in the world.

An ongoing theme in The Diary of a Young Girl is the idea of hope. Anne had plans and dreams for life when she would no longer need to live in hiding from the Nazi forces. In my speaking with various Holocaust survivors, a different hope exists: A hope that humanity learns from its mistakes and that this will never happen again.

Hatred still abounds today. The names Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Sudan, Darfur, and Burundi remind us that violence against humanitycontinues to the present day. But genocides don't happen over night. It is a series of small steps that build and no one stands up to stop them. Without dissent or resistance, violence against specific groups escalates into crimes against humanity.

The Holocaust, government sanctioned systematic attacks designed to destroy the Jewish people in Europe, is the epitome of evil and hatred. But that doesn't mean that lesser evils should be looked upon with more acceptance. Bullying, even if no physical violence occurs, can be destructive. As Anne was trapped hiding in the attic, so are thousands of children trapped in a perpetual cycle of being bullied at schools.

If Anne had not died in Bergen-Belsen, she would be 83 years old. Perhaps with children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. We owe it to her family and the families of the six million Jews, including 1.5 million children, who never had a chance to exist, to eliminate hatred anyway possible.

Hatred is no laughing matter

Many of us were taught, "sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you." We know now that this could not be more false and that words not only hurt those they attack, but can also transform into actions.

Racist or stereotypical jokes may seem harmless to those who say them but it reinforces negative stereotypes and refuses to acknowledge those groups as human beings.

Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor during the Third Reich, illustrated the danger in staying quiet in his poem, "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Take action:

There are many ways to confront bullying in your community. Support someone who you see being bullied by speaking out on his or her behalf and don't be afraid to report it to someone else. By letting persecution slide, we are little better than the offenders and there is power in numbers. Make a personal commitment to challenge injustice whenever you see it. Believe it or not, you can make a difference.

Walk a mile...

The shoes can feel much different when you put them on for the first time but breaking them in will give you the stamina to keep going without getting blisters.

Interview someone who is a different race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age or ethnic group. Ask them questions about their perspective and experiences. Show respect for everyone and look for similarities with others, not just differences.

Anne Frank wrote: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." What will you do to honor Anne Frank's legacy, starting right now, to improve the world? And if not now, when?

Harriet L. Cohen, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor in the department of social work at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has conducted interviews with Holocaust survivors, created videos, published articles and is currently working on aproject on the contributions of Holocaust survivors to their communities.

 
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