A Promise We Can Keep
By Rachel Petersen
Rapid City, SD


The early morning jogger was incensed by the thoughtlessness of whoever left the garbage bag, defiling the beauty of Rapid Creek. As she drew closer, the litter morphed into a human form. Number eight - the eighth homeless person found dead near the creek in less than eighteen months. Where was the outrage, where was the indignation, where was the resolution? Eight human beings gone, six of these were Native Americans, unsolved cases the police said and no one seemed to even notice. Jack van der Geest was right, it was happening right here in my own small Midwest town. The deaths of people, who were different from "us", met with indifference. There was a lesson in these tragic events, a lesson I learned from the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was only a word to me until that day in 8th grade when Mr. Jack van der Geest came to speak. My reaction to his story was shock, disbelieve and horror. How could anyone do such things to another? That very day I went to buy his book Was God on Vacation?. Here was a man who lives only a few miles from me, who saw these events first, hand, who was now here to bear witness. Four of the chapters in his book covered the time he spent at Buchenwald, a nightmare vignette of starving prisoners who had to steal and eat the livers of the dead to survive, of Himmler's frostbite experiments, and the sights and smells of evil.(I)

I had to try to understand the human dynamics of these events. Over the next few years, I scoured the library for answers. Anne Frank was like a girlfriend, sharing her fears, hopes and even some of her deepest secrets. She also inspired me, "In the meantime, I must hold onto my ideals."(2) In his book Night, Elie Wisel, a boy my own age when he was shipped to Auschwitz, spoke of refusing to hate the Germans, even when his own father was beaten in front of him and died there.(3)

The endless descriptions of unimaginable barbarity during the Holocaust haunted me. From Jan Gross's Neighbors, "...half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half... ".(4) Something led ordinary people to commit heinous crimes not just against their Jewish neighbors but also against all humanity. One example alone shakes the very fiber of my being, after killing most of the Jewish population, the neighbors are looking for more to kill, ... as for the little children, they roped a few together by their legs and carried them on their backs, then put them on pitchforks and threw them onto smoldering coals". (4) Watching Shoah, the French documentary, hours of oral history, told by the victims and the perpetrators; was like having a hundred Jack van der Geests in my living room.(5)

Unfortunately, it is obvious that the world has not learned what the Holocaust had to teach. Mass killings have occurred in too many places since the Holocaust, like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia - Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Congo, and it continues today. As though that's not bad enough, Ted Gottfried, in Deniers of the Holocaust, shows the length to which some people have gone to present the Holocaust as nothing more than a myth, to deprive us of these lessons altogether. Mr. Gottfried gives us a hint regarding what we can do when he answers the question, "How can such a monstrous crime as the Holocaust occur? It begins when people start thinking of themselves as "us and of others as "them". But there is no "us" and "them," there is only "we."." (6)

The Holocaust remains the most horrendous example of genocide and its companion, crimes against humanity. The common threads in these events are the dehumanization of the victims, ordinary people doing nothing and perpetuating atrocities they probably never dreamed they would do. As Anne Frank's father stated, "We cannot change what happened anymore. The only thing we can do is to learn from the past and to realize what discrimination and persecution of innocent people means. I believe that it's everyone's responsibility to fight prejudice. "(7)

I agreed with Mr. Frank, but what could a teenager, from South Dakota do to prevent genocide from ever happening again? In applying the lessons I learned from the Holocaust, I asked myself; "Who are these disheveled souls, bent in gossamer coats against a cruel artic wind, passing unnoticed, ignored even when they were found dead". I noticed there had been an unintentional yet prevalent dehumanization of the homeless, and a general consensus that homeless people are living on the streets because of some character flaw rather than because of illness or circumstance. Misconceptions about them leads many otherwise kind and ordinary people to loathe or fear them. Since most of the homeless in Rapid City are Native Americans, a group that had already experienced genocide in the past, I decided to take action. I wanted to "put a face" on these people. I decided to find out who the "them" really are. We organized a group of teenage volunteers to collect food donations and cook a meal every Saturday. We set up a feeding station near Rapid Creek, for several hours each Sunday, to feed the homeless. Over the past two years, this project has changed all of us for the better.

This then is what I am doing. This is what we all can do - work to change attitudes that alienate us from one another. It is vital to remember that each day each individual makes little decisions that can potentially build up or dehumanize another. Other examples of small acts that could benefit us all: refuse to listen to jokes that put people down, model compassion for strangers, vote for leaders actively concerned about human rights, teach others how to read so they make better decisions, join and support organizations against genocide such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The lessons learned can be applied through the adage "Think Globally--Act Locally".(8) Just as world hunger is overcome one meal at a time, hate is overcome through one kind act at a time; fear and prejudice are overcome by one enlightened moment after another. "Never again!" (9) must become more than just a slogan from the Holocaust. We need to work toward this end, everyday, through a thousand small acts in our daily lives. Then it will become a promise to all of mankind, a promise we can keep, but only if we do it together, not "us" but "we."


(1) Van der Geest Jack. Was God on Vacation? Highlands Ranch, CO: van der Geest Publishing and Distribution Co. 1995.

(2) Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Bantam, 1993.

(3) Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1982.

{4) Gross, Jan T. Neighbors. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

(5) Lanzmann, Claude. Shoah. Video. New York: New Yorker Films, 1985.

(6) Gottfried, Ted. Deniers of the Holocaust, Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty First Century Books, 2001.

(7) Frank Otto. Quote Online from The Anne Frank Center USA Website, www.annefrank.com, 2003.

(8) Unknown.
(9) Anonymous.


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