Cultivating Memory
By Jennifer Kohanim
Great Neck, NY


 

“‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother” (Night, 27). This singular moment – an utterance of eight words – would permanently transform the world of a 14 year-old Jewish teen. This moment would haunt Elie Wiesel’s dreams for the rest of his life. For Wiesel, as well as all those who experienced the Holocaust, remembering has been unavoidable, indeed inescapable. But for the youth of this generation, remembering the greatest misdeed done to humanity is more difficult; it is also insufficient. It is now vital for the next generation to pursue Holocaust studies to internalize its lessons—the fatal dangers of indifference, the power of words as well as the peril of their absence, and the nature and dire consequences of prejudice. Three main elements are necessary to fight prejudice: public awareness, proper education and a proactive stance.

“In the memory of our families / who were brutally murdered / we who are still alive / have an obligation. / It is our duty to share / our memories with others. / If we remain silent / it is as if we murder them again” (Gross, 30). So writes Holocaust survivor, Elly Gross about silence, which is the concrete display of indifference, a horrid word which dominated the international scene during the Holocaust and that, when repeated, has the potential to generate another Holocaust. The epitome of world indifference occurred at the Evian Conference, a gathering of 32 nations to discuss the refugee crisis in wartime Europe. President Roosevelt, though calling for the meeting, didn’t accept any refugees at the termination of the Conference (Heuvel, 2). Britain declared itself and its overseas territories “unsuitable” for European settlement, while France stated that it had reached “the extreme point of saturation as regards the admission of refugees” (U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

By conveying this unfortunate reality to the next generation, the dangers of silence in the midst of injustice will be acknowledged. This memory proves what occurs when the world closes its eyes and ears to cries of help. This noble act of remembrance was even acknowledged by the Jews during the Holocaust, who wrote about their devastating struggles and hid those accounts within the underground archives of each ghetto, memorialized within a regime which did not permit any such recognition or evidence (Kermish, 10). These Jews understood that language had a mirroring power of its own; they wished to provide testimony to the suffering of their people.

The press contained the power to rouse attention to the Jewish suffering, but it too remained silent – or rather was not loud enough. Not only did leading newspapers like the New York Times begin covering German discrimination against Jews only by the 1940s, but they also provided minimal exposure, shoving stories into the inner pages of the newspaper (Leff, 53). Stories that actually appeared on the front page covered only peripheral issues about Hitler’s “Final Solution” plan and its implementation. Even articles about the liberation obscured the fact that Jews were the majority of the victims by describing the dead as “Jews, Poles, Russians, and in fact representatives of a total of 22 nationalities” or by mentioning Jewish victims in the last paragraphs of articles (Leff, 59).

These reports place selective emphasis on one part of the Holocaust experience and less on the Jewish experiences during the Holocaust. Such reporting may be accurate in facts but may also reflect a prejudice through omission of the momentous effect of the Holocaust on Jews.

Omission, indifference and distortion greatly impacted the outcomes of the Holocaust. But its chief instigator can be defined in one word: prejudice. Prejudice is the force behind the murder of 11,000,000 people – Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and the physically and mentally disabled. According to Harvard psychologist, Gordon Allport, prejudice is not innate; rather it is taught. Schooling under the Third Reich inculcated German youth with propaganda whose purpose was “stamping the conviction into the child that his own people and his own race are superior to others,” as stated in Hitler’s Mein Kempf (Mann, 42). Universities underwent gleichschaltung (synchronization), a purging of all people with “unreliable elements” and a reorganization of curriculum by the National Socialist ideologues (Mann, 46). Through the understanding of Nazi strategies in spreading prejudice, the next generation can devise similar strategies in counteracting prejudice and discrimination: awareness, education, and a proactive stance on individual and community levels.

Awareness is more than just being well-versed on discrimination issues of today. It involves constant learning and delving into areas of one’s personal unfamiliarity and perplexity. It incorporates not only reading about the treatment of a specific group like the African-Americans during the early 20th century, but also immersing oneself in the experience of the prejudice by reading the poetry and drama produced in the dark period. Textbooks won’t suffice in spreading awareness; prejudice must be examined and discussed from intellectual and emotional points of view.

Education involves sharing thoughts with a group and learning from people with different levels of awareness. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-bias efforts prove most beneficial when all students are involved. Paperclips, the Holocaust project run by a small school in Whitwell, Tennessee, is an excellent example of effective education against prejudice. There the Holocaust is taught in class as a basis for learning tolerance, while students manage the project of collecting six million paperclips in order to fully capture the staggering number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The format of this program is noteworthy because the school teachers provide the information, while the students take that knowledge and independently cultivate its meaning on mental and emotional levels.

This type of interactive education creates a strong base of students who have the passion to proactively fight discrimination. Discussions initially started in the sphere of the classroom extend into the sphere of anti-bias groups, where initiatives are outlined and executed. Any form of action—holding awareness conferences, organizing peace gatherings or appealing to politicians or the media—is possible with the power of a group. In addition, anti-bias groups inherently not only take action against prejudice abroad, but also virtually demolish any of their own lingering prejudices through the diverse nature of their group. Forming groups whose underlying purpose is that of the promotion of tolerance, acceptance, and respect directly combats the pockets of hate, terrorism, and extremism in the world. Through the process of awareness, education, and action—elements we must remember were absent in the world during the Holocaust—we create hope for the future of humanity. "Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children…Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live…Never" (Night, 32).

 

Works Cited

Gross, Elly. The Poems of Elly Gross: Memories of a Holocaust Survivor. Colombia House Publications.

Heuvel, William J. Vanden. “Roosevelt & The Holocaust.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt Heritage Museum. Fdrheritage.org

Kermish, Joseph. To Live With Honor And Die With Honor: Selected Documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1986.

Leff, Laurel. “When the Facts Didn’t Speak for Themselves: The Holocaust in the New York Times, 1939-1945.” Why Didn’t the Press Shout? New Jersey: Yeshiva University Press, 2003.

Mann, Erika. School For Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis. New York: Modern Age Books, 1938.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Batnam Books, 1986.

“The Evian Conference.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Reference Library. ushmm.org
 

 


The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.

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