Members of Bakersfield's Jewish community and their guests observed Holocaust Remembrance Day at Temple Beth El earlier this month. We lit candles in memory of the 6 million Jews who perished in Nazi death camps, heard poems that victims scrawled on death camp walls, prayed for the victims, and hoped for the repair of our mutilated world.
At CSU Bakersfield, a student group developed four nights of presentations about the Holocaust, thus honoring the victim's plea "to always remember and never forget." Such programs call for the practice of active memory and a commitment to educate others and ourselves about the continuing horror of hatred, violence and genocide.
But education about the Holocaust can be very misguided, as a recent story from upstate New York illustrates. In Albany, the state's capital, a teacher required students to write an essay convincing a Nazi official of their loyalty to the regime by arguing that Jews are evil. Such a topic asks students to legitimize the Holocaust, murdering the victims again through the perversion of memory.
Role-playing is unacceptable in Holocaust education. Handle with care is the most basic ethical requirement of Holocaust and genocide studies. Honesty is paramount for the necessary investigation of human behavior and moral responsibility. Study of the Holocaust requires us to see and accept the inexplicable, and the limitations and inadequacy of historical knowledge and explanation. It requires us to reflect painfully on ourselves.
Study of the Holocaust and genocide gives us insight into human nature. We learn of the potential for good and evil lying dormant in all of us. In Nazi Germany, pastors and priests abandoned their Jewish neighbors, crying out, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Lawyers, businessmen, teachers and engineers chose to encourage prejudice, hatred and mass murder. Architects designed the death camps, tradespeople built them, and the military ran them. Camp doctors "experimented" on victims, and chose which of them to send to the gas chambers.
Silence and indifference are the roots of prejudice, hatred and violence. Anti-Semitism shockingly continues long after the Holocaust has ended, and the Albany teacher offers a painful reminder of this. We must learn that nurturing democratic principles shouldn't be taken for granted, and that education is the key to an open society seeking a more perfect union. We must gain understanding of the value of pluralism, which encourages neighbors to move beyond tolerance to engagement. We must embrace the belief, "I am my brother's and sister's keeper."
Even those who struggle to embrace active memory of the victims of Holocaust and genocide find that empathy is fragile. But disruptive empathy is essential to action that goes against the tide of being a bystander while others suffer. This is what we need to nurture in our children.
My students sometimes ask me how we are to deal with the trauma of studying the Holocaust. I tell them that teaching allows me to act on the victim's plea "to always remember and never forget." But sometimes I also tell them of the exterminated village of the Jews of Ejszyszki, Lithuania, and Yaffa Eliach's portraits of its people that is in the permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I have visited the museum many times, and the faces of the people displayed there -- playing, laughing, working, enjoying life -- stay with me in a way that is hard to describe.
In a time when there are budget cuts for higher education and widespread criticism of the humanities for rejecting the job training endemic to the contemporary university, we must educate students about the Holocaust and genocide. Exploring history, philosophy and religion gives us an awareness of moral responsibility that helps us to develop the disruptive empathy that can end prejudice and violence. Self-knowledge is essential.
We don't have to be powerless bystanders. Genocide isn't inevitable. Educating our children and ourselves, taking responsibility for events in our communities and nations, and bearing witness to the victimization of diverse peoples can successfully oppose prejudice and violence on small and large scales.
At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., the bags from the gift shop say, "Tell people what you saw here." This is advice we should all follow.
Steve Campagna-Pinto is an associate professor of religious studies at CSU Bakersfield, and co-director of the Institute for Religion, Education and Public Policy.