America, Pay Attention: We Will Be Judged By History

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By De Elizabeth

The first time I ever learned about the Holocaust was when I was seven or eight. My parents sent my brother and I to Hebrew School twice a week, and while most of the classes were focused around learning letters and holidays, we spent an entire two weeks talking about the Holocaust in April – just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day. We would read poems in class that had a repeated refrain, Never again. We met Holocaust survivors, saw the numbers on their arms, listened to their stories with a sort of disconnect – that was so long ago, another time, another place. That could never happen here. 

Incidentally, my connection to the topic of World War 2 and The Holocaust did not end with my childhood Hebrew School classes, and it does not stop at my Jewish heritage. I’ve been teaching  middle and high school for the past six years – theater and humanities – and every year, I spend at least two months on the subject of the Holocaust. In class, we read Night and Diary of Anne Frank, and we talk in-depth about the events that led up to the Holocaust.

As a teacher, I have several goals when we begin this unit. Many of my students have had little exposure to the topic before we start this particular unit, and it’s important to me that they leave my classroom with two solid ideas:

1) The Holocaust was not “inevitable.”

2) Everyone – everyone – was responsible. 

This is in conjunction with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s guide for educators – it is important to ensure that young people understand that the way the Holocaust happened was not out of anyone’s control. It is easy – particularly for teenagers – to just say, “Oh, it was just that person’s job, he was just following the law.” It is a lot harder to look back and say, “That person, who was just following the law, was wrong.”

I begin my unit with an activity where students have to assess the responsibility of individual people and citizens living in 1930s Germany. They have to ask themselves, How responsible was this person for the events that took place during the Holocaust? Then, they have to rate the people on a scale of 1 to 4.

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When we do this activity at the beginning of the unit, students always use a lot of 1’s and 2’s. They say things like, “Well the driver of the trains probably didn’t have a choice.” Or, “The children at Hitler Youth rallies were probably just sent there by their parents.” And, “Well, the workers in the plants had to make a living.”

As a teacher, it’s hard not to interject. It’s hard not to say, “Actually, they did have a choice.” But I know that they’ll reach that conclusion on their own, after we read Night, after we talk – in depth – about Nazi propaganda, about picture books depicting Jews as monsters, about the dozens of laws (yes laws) passed in Germany to exclude Jews from public life.

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By the end of our unit, we revisit the responsibility chart. Gone are the 1’s and 2’s; they are replaced with 3’s and 4’s. I hear from students, “Hitler was only strong because he had supporters. If he had no supporters, he would have just been one person.” And, “Maybe if one person in a town refused to comply with the law, another person would have too. And another. And another.” They get it. Mission accomplished, right?

Rinse and repeat. I do this year after year, but this year, it feels particularly poignant. It feels particularly important and yet, simultaneously inefficient. How do we teach the next generation to learn from history’s mistakes when our country is making them again?

Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States, ran an entire campaign that was fueled by hate and racism. He talked about building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants, making Muslims register, banning Muslims from the country, and encouraged violence at his rallies. And now he is appointing literal white nationalists neoNazis to his administration. This really isn’t a point for debate anymore. One only needs to look as far as Steve Bannon to understand – and that’s only the beginning.

Just yesterday, CNN ran this headline at the bottom of their screen:

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And then, there’s this video of Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right, yelling “Hail Trump, hail victory” before going on to talk about how “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity.”

The alt-right has existed for some time in a corner of the Internet, but it’s clear that Trump has given life, voice, and power to this movement. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t really be calling them the “alt-right” at all, as though they are some “alternative” group, like the punk rock kids who sat in a corner by themselves at lunch in high school. These are white supremacists, neo-Nazis, fascists, and misogynists, masquerading themselves as a group of men wearing suits with just “a different point of view.”

It must be noted that the video above should be extremely disturbing, and it is, but it’s also not surprising anymore. And that is terrifying. Instances of blatant racism or bigotry are becoming part of our everyday occurrences – and we cannot let ourselves get complacent. For example, right before Election Day, Ann Coulter – political commentator and total racist – tweeted this:

This is the exact same logic used by Nazis. The comparisons to 1930s Germany are not exaggerations; we are not being overdramatic. There is an eerie similarity to what happened in the years leading up to the actual Holocaust and what is happening right now, in 2016, in the United States of America. In fact, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has also made this connection. In an official statement, they said, “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.” And Holocaust survivors have commented that this all “feels very familiar.”

There’s this idea being repeated that Trump’s presidency was “inevitable” – that this is what we get for not listening to the other side, or that it’s a result of economic inequity and strained relations between the “coastal elites” and the rust belt. This is the wrong path to go down, because it ignores the actual nightmare that is happening in our country. It ignores the hate crimes that have happened since Election Day – the hate crimes that Donald Trump has not denounced other than his pathetic “Stop It.” It ignores the students chanting “White power” in their high school, the swastikas drawn at the playground in Brooklyn, the Muslim women who have been threatened, the middle schoolers yelling “build that wall,” and the hundreds of other racist incidents that have occurred in the past two weeks. The rise of the Nazi party was not inevitable. The rise of the “alt-right” is not inevitable either.

There’s a line in The Sound of Music that has been haunting me since November 8. Max, who is the friend of Captain von Trapp, is a Nazi sympathizer – mostly because he doesn’t want to lose his connections and friends in high places. He has a line towards the end of the play where he says, “What’s going to happen is going to happen. Just don’t let it happen to you.”  I’m afraid that this is the mentality that many are adopting – the people who are able to get back to normal since Election Day are the very people who should not do so. If you are privileged enough to not be affected by Trump’s presidency, you should help the others who are.

In Night, by Elie Wiesel, the first few chapters are focused on the villagers as they are sent from their homes to the ghetto. But before that, they are given rules and restrictions – they could not attend plays, they had a curfew, they had to wear a yellow Star of David pinned to their clothing. Elie’s father, who is later killed in the concentration camps, says, “The yellow star? You don’t die of it,” and placidly pins it to his coat. Elie, in an aside comment, writes, “Poor father. Of what then did you die?”

There is a quiet hatred in our country that is rumbling to a roar. Do not let it become a roar.

We, just like the “little guys” in 1930s Germany, are all responsible.

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{featured image via USHMM}

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