I hope readers of the next 900 words will be patient with me. I usually aim to gently reminisce about days gone by or comment on modern life through my decidedly Boomer filter; occasionally I even allow a personal opinion to spill onto the page. This week, however, I could not conjure up sweet memories or clever comments or even an opinion. This week I am writing to somehow figure out the unfigure-out-able.
Last week people around the world observed International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an especially poignant milepost because of the 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in particular and in general an end to some 42,500 slave labor camps, ghettoes, concentration camps, extermination camps, and killing centers in operation during the historical period we now refer to as the Holocaust. I had no plans to write about this horrific era again, having addressed it previously – but my mind, my heart, my conscience nagged at me. As with the ever-dwindling number of veterans from the Second World War, each year there are fewer survivors of the camps to remind us of the despicable, depraved brutality perpetrated all across Europe.
For reasons unclear to myself, my attention has long been drawn to this period of history. When the camps were liberated, my birth was still three years away, and I recall no particular mention of this aspect of the 30’s and 40’s in my high school or college history courses.
An impromptu circumstance in 1976 during the first year of exchange with our German partner school changed my perspective. At the end of a day of sightseeing with the American and German students, Ingrid agreed to my request to stop at the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp, some two hours north of Springe. Standing at the gates of the former camp, the German students elected to wait outside, while my group toured the museum and its environs.
I was unprepared for our walk across the hushed grounds where an eerie quiet hung over the walkways lined with expanse after expanse of raised earth covered with heather and marked by stone tablets inscribed: “Hier ruhen 5000 Toten” (Here rest 5000 dead). I have never forgotten that day at Bergen Belsen.
I have also never forgotten what happened a short time later. During a meeting with the German parents to evaluate the exchange, one mother questioned our visit to Bergen Belsen because the German students had felt uncomfortable when the Americans toured the camp. She felt that era of German history belonged in the past and that both sets of young people could better focus on the present and future. Another parent, however, amid murmured agreement, countered that young people were the very ones who needed to know about that terrible time to prevent it from happening again.
Two years later I sat in appalled silence as the mini-series, entitled simply Holocaust, unfolded across four days on my TV screen, a production depicting the juxtaposed lives of a Jewish family and a Nazi family. That viewing experience, along with the impact of the Bergen Belsen visit and the subsequent parent meeting, brought into focus the need to explore with my students important lessons from the Holocaust and led me through years of reading and study. I arranged yearly visits to the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich and took personal trips to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington and a Holocaust museum in Israel. I developed a unit about the Holocaust for German 3 and an online course for the Graham Digital Academy.
Until recently, I believed that public attention brought to bear would help us and future generations never again to allow such a venomous expression of hate toward a group of people – a hope represented by the Never Again monuments displayed at many Holocaust memorials across the globe. But the oft-quoted words of warning, Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, are turning back on us in this 21st century as we watch ever-increasing numbers of attacks against those of the Jewish faith.
I have been reading again to understand this resurgence of anti-Semitism and have encountered euphemistic terms including resettlement, deportation, ethnic cleansing. Such is the modern vocabulary of hate-speak that hearkens back to Nazi policies sanctioning the most grotesque program of all: The Final Solution to the Jewish Question, a prettified expression for the state-sponsored genocide and extermination that resulted.
Perhaps I have deluded myself that peace in the world and understanding among people have been closer at hand than during those dark days of the Holocaust. Unbelievably, it seems nowadays there is more hate and violence everywhere, against any number of ethnic and religious groups. Must we wait for another Holocaust? Can we not heal our hearts and eliminate hate wherever it rears its ugly head?
From the many memorials and tributes I saw in observance of the 75th International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the following translation of a passage posted on Facebook by a German friend has proved the most meaningful as I move ahead in quandary and contemplation: It did not begin with the gas chambers. It began with policies that created a national them-against-us atmosphere. It began with harassment and intolerance. It began with deprivation of basic human rights. It began with burning houses. It began with people who looked the other way.
We cannot, must not look the other way…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.