This weekend President Obama spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to commemorate Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust Remembrance Day. In a heartfelt speech he honored the 6 million Jewish victims and announced a new Atrocities Prevention Board to battle modern-day genocide in places such as Darfur and aid the ongoing hunt to bring "madman" Joseph Kony to justice.
However, his most impassioned words were about our children: "I say this as a president, and I say it as a father ... Tell your children about it, and let your children tell theirs, and their children the next generation. That's why we're here. Not simply to remember, but to speak."
I sat there thinking about my own young children, caught between wanting to shield them from a suffering so cruel it defies comprehension and a visceral desire to make sure they never forget, never repeat what happened to people I've never met -- 5,000 miles away and 30 years before I was even born.
What is it about the Holocaust that still calls out to us more than 60 years later?
Certainly it's about learning from past mistakes and honoring the survivors, but the Holocaust also highlights growing problems for today's youth -- bullying, bigotry and the ever-changing "other."
"What's so compelling about the Holocaust is that it's a story about human nature, which reminds us that each of us is susceptible, each of us can be othered," says Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It was an unprecedented event on a scale of nothing we'd imagined possible in an educated, sophisticated, democratic country. It's really a warning that even the things you think will protect you might not and that the unthinkable is thinkable."
With Obama's words in mind I interviewed a class of fourth grade students at Bay View Elementary School in Santa Cruz, Calif. I wanted to gauge their understanding of the Holocaust, since formal curriculum isn't typically offered in public schools until the eighth grade. Out of 30 students, only two recognized the word.
But when talk turned to discrimination and bigotry, every single hand went up, each student desperate to recount his or her own tale of prejudice. Some were picked on for fair skin and freckles, others for dark skin, speaking different languages or simply being the new kid. One student mentioned the Trayvon Martin killing and another brought up 9/11.
When they were done I asked if they noticed any similarities; after all, each had a unique and often opposing reason for being singled out. That, of course, was the pattern. The only similarity was that in one very painful moment, each child was "othered."
"I don't believe there could be another such event in our country, but I look at the problems of the homosexual community and Muslims for example, and I wonder if my optimism is misplaced," says Stephen Adler, executive director of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust. Still others see parallels in the plight of Mexican immigrants or inner-city youth.
From race to LGBT hate crimes, it's an issue that American youth confront all the time. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that the very young (and the very old) express and experience the highest degrees of intolerance.
"Learning about the Holocaust is a hard lesson," says Abraham Foxman, ADL National Director. "But young people particularly need to understand that they are capable of the gift of life. That's very powerful. The average person has the strength to stand up and say no to bullying, no to anti-Semitism, no to discrimination. That's all it would have taken for the Holocaust to never have happened."
Stefanie Seltzer of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust owes her life to such heroes.
"When I speak to young people I try to stress that even in the most difficult times, even when evil reigned, there were brave, heroic people who did the moral, the ethical thing -- who tried to help people," says Seltzer. "In my case, shockingly, even by two Gestapo officers who 'chose not to hear' when they came to the house where I was hidden."
Maureen McNeil, education director of The Anne Frank Center, USA works with thousands of children each year. She speculates that most children relate to feeling alone and stigmatized like Anne Frank, but she also sees some groups with eerie parallels to The Diary of Anne Frank itself.
"Many children exist in horrible conditions and, in fact, some of the kids in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City share similarities to her experience," says McNeil. "They know discrimination, random violence, over-crowded conditions, hunger, police indifference or mistreatment, and the reality of having few choices in life, so they relate to Anne and connect with Anne's resiliency."
Today there are approximately 120,000 remaining survivors in the U.S., many whose stories have been painstakingly documented. Technology will be key in keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive for tomorrow's generations via films, photo galleries, interactive exhibits, digital books, documentaries, writing contests for schools and even holographic interviews where students can ask camp survivors questions.
Mitch Braff, executive director of the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation hopes that technology will also continue to prevent future incidents of genocide.
"Technology has changed everything, especially how we communicate," says Braff. "We have Twitter, Facebook, blogs, even 24-hour news like CNN. We know that hatred and oppression are still very real, however, these increased data points offer opportunities for victims to be heard and to find advocates for their plights."
But with technological advancement come challenges. Educators are disturbed by the growing trend of Holocaust denial on the Internet and fear it might influence today's tech-savvy youth.
"As tensions heat up in the Middle East and Holocaust survivors pass away, it's incredibly dangerous to see Holocaust denial grow and history blur with the passing of time," says Dr. Anita Friedman, executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Family Children's Services.
Friedman adds, "Technology has made everything so available, so transparent, that you would think people feel safer, but in our work we see people are scared about a growing underlying tension between class, race, religion and so on. It's a fascinating paradox where the increase in technological access is in many cases actually increasing our anxiety."
While 99-year-old Bergen-Belsen survivor Jack Polak is troubled by the trend, he believes in the inherent goodness of people and has faith that his legacy will continue to speak for him when he can no longer be that voice.
During my talk with those fourth grade students, I shared six life lessons Jack has followed for the past 67 years:
1. Don't discriminate.
2. Don't generalize.
3. Don't be a bystander.
4. Work for peace.
5. Enjoy the simple things.
6. We live in the greatest country in the world.
They had only one addition: Don't forget the past.
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