September of this year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. There is no agreed upon moment, however, when the Holocaust began. Some date it to Hitler's coming to power in 1933. Others mark the onset to Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, in November of 1938. Since the Holocaust was undeniably a component of World War II, however, it seems fair to say that next month also marks the anniversary of its inception.
It is clear why we note the beginning of World War II. We won. The forces of good beat the Axis of Evil, and the "best generation" came home victorious. Less obvious is why it's important to mark the anniversary of the Holocaust. Why continue to look back at one of humankind's bleakest moments? There were no winners and far too few heroes. Isn't it enough that some of us have read Anne Frank's diary or seen Schindler's List? I think not. In the course of writing and teaching about the Holocaust, I have discovered that the Holocaust is rich in lessons to sustain our humanity.
The Holocaust is a cautionary tale about leaders and cowards, heroes and victims. In examining it, we delve into the darkest parts of ourselves and reflect upon how we might have acted, what we could have done, had we been present. Would we have taken a job in the Nazi Party if we were unemployed? Would we have followed orders at work in order to get promoted? Would we have risked our own lives, or those of family members, in order to hide or protect others? Would we have spoken up in the face of injustice? The Holocaust provides an opportunity for each of us to consider how we would or should act the next time we see others robbed of their fundamental rights.
The Holocaust is also an enlightening tale about political systems and a horror story about the abuses of power. Adolf Hitler took office in a democracy which, at its core, was similar to the one in which we feel so safe today. In the blink of an eye, he converted his government into a totalitarian regime, in which all oaths were pledged to him. Overnight, Hitler began eviscerating the rights of the communists, the homosexuals, the disabled, the gypsies, the Catholics, and of course, the Jews. What does this tell us about the ability of a democracy to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities? Lest we forget that our own democracy, not so long ago, tolerated slavery. It also endorsed euthanasia for the disabled and forbade women from voting. Those educated in the abuses of power that took place leading up to and during the Holocaust will be better equipped to vigilantly protect the democratic values we so treasure today in our own country.
In our country, education is cherished. It is viewed as a ticket to success and key to a civilized, informed society. Authors, politicians, and educators espouse the importance of American youth studying hard, in part to compete with industrious students around the world. Yet at the same time, we must keep in mind that the Hall of Shame from the Holocaust was filled with doctors, engineers, and lawyers. Without judgment and compassion, without an awareness of the dangers of following orders without reflection, we are just one election, evil leader, or disastrous economic cycle away from another Weimar Republic of the early 1930's. We must teach our children to be thoughtful, proactive citizens. In learning about the Holocaust, students can see where a past generation failed and what role they will play in the tragedies of their own generation.
Today, in Sudan's Darfur region, another ethnic cleansing is taking place. The Janjaweed militia, supported by the Sudanese government, is systematically murdering the region's black tribes. Outside Darfur, in other parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America, strife and violence are rampant. Both World War I and World War II taught us that under the stresses of war, prejudices are often heightened.
In 1915, not long after the start of World War I, authorities in the Muslim Ottoman Empire turned against the Armenians, a Christian minority that had lived for generations within the region. The world politely turned away as a million or more Armenians were massacred over the next eight years. Our country, along with many others, again looked the other way, over and over again, as Hitler's campaign ramped up in the 1930's. In 1936, at the summer Olympics in Berlin, for example, not only did the United States agree to attend the games, but coaches from this country pulled two Jewish runners from the relay team at the eleventh hour, at least in part so as not to offend Hitler. In 1939, intellectuals in our country and throughout Europe passively looked on as Jewish professors were unceremoniously fired from the University of Frankfurt, the most liberal university in Germany. And again, that same year, over 900 Jewish men, women, and children aboard the ship the St. Louis, after desperately fleeing Nazi Europe and arriving on the shores of Cuba, were denied entry not only in that country but also in the United States, and forced to turn back. Each of these events emboldened Hitler. He had good reason to believe that the world's leaders would not object to his gross violation of human rights. Yes, some individuals spoke up. And sometimes, when they did, lives were spared. But mostly we were a world of bystanders, paving the way for many more bystanders over the six ensuing years of the Holocaust. Studying the Holocaust helps each of us to comprehend the downside of being a bystander, or of acting at the eleventh hour, rather than at the first opportunity. It makes us better prepared to be good, humane citizens in today's world.
The Holocaust occurred not so long ago and in a land not so far away. As the 70-year anniversary approaches, we are in a race against time. When young people today hear a Holocaust survivor speak, they are bearing witness to that which their own children are never likely to experience the same way. And as the voices of the Holocaust survivors quiet, those of the ones who insist that the Holocaust never happened will grow louder and, perhaps, more persuasive. To continue to mark its existence, to study its implications, is to honor its victims and better protect humankind in the future. As we vow that such a tragedy will not occur again, we must remember that there is an awful lot of suffering taking place in the world this very moment.
Leslie Gilbert-Lurie is the author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir.