Reena Mittleman
Baltimore, MD


 

In Israel, a memorial called Yad Vashem is located in Jerusalem. This memorial pays tribute to the millions of victims who perished in the Holocaust. During the six years of the Holocaust, over 11 million people – including 6 million Jews – were ruthlessly slaughtered by Nazi Germany. These people were deprived first of their rights, their homes, and their professions, and finally their lives. We are taught to respect, honor, and remember the victims of the Holocaust. But, remembering is not enough. Empowered by their memory, we must strive to change the world around us and prevent such a monstrosity from ever occurring again. We must accept it as our responsibility to counteract the mistakes of the past and carry the burden of our identity into the future.

There are hundreds of books and documentaries describing the terrors of the Holocaust and the many factors that made it possible. These factors include widespread respectability of "race science" and "race hygiene"; elimination of a democracy and its replacement with totalitarianism; prolonged war throughout the world; a long history of anti–Semitism in Europe; economic hardship; poor knowledge of events in foreign lands; and the far–reaching consequences of hate and prejudice It is imperative that we recognize similar warning signs in today’s society, and that we apply the lessons learned from the Holocaust to our everyday lives.

One lesson is that taking action against prejudice does make a difference. There are amazing stories of individuals (Jewish and non–Jewish) who risked their lives to save and protect the Jews during WWII. Rescuers hid Jews in their basements and attics, forged false identification papers, and even transported Jews across borders to save as many as possible from the Nazi death camps. A legendary figure who saved Jews during the Holocaust was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who issued passports that protected thousands of Jews in Budapest, Hungary. He risked his life many times in face–to–face confrontations with German and Hungarian offcials. In the end, he personally saved the lives of at least 20,000 Hungarian Jews.

During the Holocaust, fighting prejudice was not limited to individuals; whole towns worked together to protect their Jewish neighbors and friends. In Le Chambon–sur–Lignon, France, the villagers united and succeeded in rescuing many Jews. The Dutch village of Niuvelande also united in support of their Jewish neighbors, hiding at least one Jew in every household. Another remarkable rescue story is that of Denmark. Danish citizens stood together against the Nazis and evacuated many Jews to the safety of Sweden. They found safety in numbers and the Nazis did not take revenge. The stories of these courageous rescuers demonstrate the tremendous power of unity. We must learn to work together and take advantage of this power to achieve our goals.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn from the Holocaust is that the best time to speak out against bigotry is before the forces of hate grow strong. "Indifference is the real evil. All that is needed for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing" (The Holocaust: Understanding and Remembering, Strahinich, p. 87). For example, all of Germany’s churches protested against the Nazi program of "mercy killing" aimed at people with handicaps. Because of these united protests, Hitler eventually backed down. Unfortunately, German churches as a group did not protest Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. The rest of the world also failed to take united action. The Nazis took heart from this lack of unified action and from the minimal response and protests that their treatment of the Jews sparked among the rest of the world. They took the apathy of the West as a sign that they could do as they pleased to the Jews. Surely, if countries or groups, including the Jews themselves, had united in protest against the Nazi plans, much suffering would have been avoided, and many deaths prevented. However, by the time any strong international action was taken, it was too late; thousands of people had already died at the hands of the Nazis. Taking a stand against hatred requires courage and determination, but individuals working together can make a difference.

There have been many recent events in history which closely parallel those of the Holocaust. Around fifteen years ago, in Cambodia, close to 3 million people were killed simply because they were part of the upper class. A few years later, in Bosnia, several hundred thousand people were killed because of their religion. Even more recently, a few years ago, in Rwanda, at least one million innocent people were killed because they belonged to a certain tribe. In each of these genocide cases, the victims were innocent people persecuted because of their religion, race, or position in society, as in the Holocaust. Just like before the Holocaust there were warning signs, so too here there were signs of upcoming danger. But few people took these signs as their cue to take action, and then the violence was too powerful to stop. It is discouraging that even after the Holocaust, major steps are still not being taken to ensure that a similar event does not occur again.

For this reason, it is crucial that the Holocaust and its lessons are taught in schools throughout the world. The children of our future are our only hope of putting these lessons into practice. Before we can entrust our children with the job of perfecting the world, they must learn how to react to the hate crimes that occur today and how to prevent them. The oral histories, videotapes, and diaries of the survivors should be made readily available to children, and the events of the Holocaust should be analyzed by students. The survivors with us today are living testaments to the destructive nature of man, and their stories must be remembered forever.

Youths should be encouraged to attend Holocaust memorial services and to participate in anti–hate–crime rallies. Through the utilization of these programs, children will come to terms with the past and will be prepared to embrace the future, armed with the lessons of the Holocaust and with the legacy of their ancestors who taught courage, bravery, and to hold on to what you believe in. For the sake of those who perished, let us not forget. For the sake of those who survived, let us remember. They need us and we must not deny them.

The flames and candles in Yad Vashem are not just lights on a wall; they represent those who died and are no longer able to tell us their story. We are compelled to remember the lessons of the Holocaust for those who were silenced. We must suppress the acts of hate and violence resurfacing in our world today. Holding high the burning flame of our legacy, we must vow never to let it die. Only once we have truly learned from the lessons of the victims, survivors, and rescuers of the Holocaust can we ensure that such an event will not recur. Only then can we say "Never Again!"

As Peter Gersh, a Holocaust survivor in Poland, said:

We who survived believe that there is a meaning to our survival. It places on us a special responsibility to tell what happened .... To stand up for the oppressed. To build a world based on justice, peace, and dignity for everyone. That would be the best and a lasting memorial to our parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, and friends that perished in the Holocaust.

(Quoted in The Holocaust: Understanding and Remembrance, H. Strahinich, p. 91.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bachrach, Deborah. The Resistance. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, Inc., 1998.

Fremon, David K. The Holocaust Heroes. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Giddens, Sandra. Escape: Teens Who Escaped the Holocaust to Freedom. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.

Grant, R.G. The Holocaust. Austin, TX: Steck–Vaughn Co., 1998.

Jick, Leon A. "Holocaust." The World Book Encyclopedia. Vol. 8: 296. Chicago, IL: World Book, Inc., 1994.

Lyman, Darryl. Holocaust Rescuers: Ten Stories of Courage. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1999.

Meltzer, Milton. Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988.

Rogasky, Barbara Smoke and Ashes: The Story of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Holiday House, 1988.

Strahinich, Helen. The Holocaust: Understanding and Remembering. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1996.

 

 

 


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