Through Remembrance, Understanding

There are no words that can really express the horror that humanity is capable of.  We have such selective memories, storing all the good times and more irrelevant inanities such as celebrity gossip, release dates, etc.  And yet that which hurts us, be it emotional or physical, we push away until we have either grown to numb ourselves against it and ignore its presence or forget the thing entirely.

Why am I lamenting memory and speaking of horror?

“Memory of the Camps” remains one of the most definitive and unforgettable records of the 20th century’s darkest hour.

It’s because I believe we must not succumb to pushing the memory of pain away.  It is imperative that we embrace both what brings us joy and what leaves us aching and wretched, so that we can grow from both our victories and our failures.  I’ve never been more strongly reminded of this belief than in my International Human Rights class, watching Memory of the Camps.

International human rights is such an abstract concept to most people.  We hear “human rights” and think “Yes, everyone should be treated equal and have equal opportunity”, then usually just move ahead to the next thing on our minds.  We forget that, not so very long ago, human rights was not a universal concept…nor was it on its way to becoming one anytime soon.

World War II and the unspeakable atrocities committed before and during the war, changed all of that.

Every child in this country learns about the Holocaust in school.  Most schools begin the lesson in elementary or middle school, traditionally using The Diary of Anne Frank as a starting point.  As you progress through your years at school and enter high school, there is at least one lesson on the Holocaust each year.  The older you are, the more detailed the lessons become.

The story of a girl and her family hiding from the horror of an evil man and his government in an attic until they are captured, is poignant but relatively abstract when you’re a child.  You understand that this really happened, that this girl and her family were real…but as a child you feel so removed reading this story years after it happened, that the impact is not quite there.

As you get older and the lessons continue, the story of Anne Frank begins to grow in context as you learn of the concentration camps in more detail.  Gas chambers, crematoriums, torture, murder, starvation…all of these things become more clear as you are taught that so many people were senselessly murdered, and suddenly we’re no longer so removed.

Holocaust Remembrance

27 January, International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

I completely support the teaching of the Holocaust to our children.  It is something that is absolutely necessary.  However, more often than not, it is used to teach tolerance or is taught in the context of a history lesson.  I believe that this approach, while not wrong, is detrimental in that it promotes a thought process of “The Holocaust was a terrible event in history, and it’s tragic what happened to all those people.”  Why detrimental?  Because I believe that it’s a disservice and a mistake to depict the Holocaust as just an event in history.  I know that this is not the intention of any teacher nor are all students prone to seeing it that way, but this is still what usually happens.

Genocide is a difficult concept to really grasp when you live in a place so far removed from such horror and chaos.  I remember the most impactful thing that I have ever encountered in high school with respect to genocide, was my freshman year when my World History teacher set aside a week of class and had us watch and respond to the film Hotel Rwanda.  That was the first and really only time for me that a teacher taught a lesson about genocide without sugar-coating, downplaying, or outright omitting the disturbing visions and accounts of violence involved in mass systematic murder.  To this day I am still grateful for that experience.  A girl who was also in that class with me, went on to set up a school wide assembly presentation on the Holocaust her senior year, bringing in leaders of Holocaust Memorial/Remembrance groups as well as an 83 year old survivor so that she could speak to us about her experience and the tragedy and horror she endured.  That was the most memorable Holocaust lesson I’ve ever had, and also the most impactful.

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

–Niccolo Machiavelli

I think it’s important for students to take at least one class or attend a seminar while in college about the Holocaust and as well as other genocides.  There is a limit in high school to what they are allowed (or consider okay) to show students about such horrific occurrences both past and present.  At a college level or during a seminar, there is no censorship or omission of certain details.  Rather you are shown/told/read information and recollections that allow for atrocity to be brought to light and discussed in stark detail.  This is extremely important for not only students, but society as a whole.

We have a bad habit of pushing aside or minimizing something like genocide and other crimes committed against humanity, because the frightfully common mindset is that people (and countries) don’t want to be responsible for doing something to intervene.  In the case of global politics, the rule of interference specifically states that the UN is required to act in the case of genocide.  This is more or less one of the biggest reasons why the atrocities going on in places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burma and more, are not labeled as genocide but “areas of conflict” or something similar.

It is imperative that documentaries like Memory of the Camps and films like Hotel Rwanda are released and viewed.  If we continue to settle for educating ourselves on these matters (past and present) in a manner where the most graphic or disturbing information is censored then we’re doomed to have a repeat of abhorrent events like the Holocaust.  Not because of a lack of awareness, but because of passivity bred over time as we distance ourselves from the true extent and impact that the systematic torture and murder of 11 million people should have on us.  If we deny the true extent of what happened, we allow ourselves to fall into a false sense of security that will inevitably lead to us permitting a repeat occurrence.

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