The lights were turned down in the classroom, the television on a cart wheeled into its place. We always loved when we saw that television cart — that meant we were watching a movie in class. Over 30 years later, I cannot shake what I saw next: grainy black-and-white documentary film footage of a bulldozer pushing piles upon piles of bodies into a mass grave, as though they were dirt. The movie was Night and Fog, a documentary about the Holocaust.
Last week, Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in violence. White nationalist groups converged on the city. Chanting, “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” marching with confederate flags and flags of Nazi Germany with giant, black swastikas. The symbols are unmistakeable: They are symbols of one of the worst genocides, mass killings, in human history. The white nationalists use these symbols because they represent fear, cruelty, and violence toward groups that they, too, would like to have eradicated. White nationalists are neo-Nazis.
Holocaust, Greek origin: “Sacrifice by fire”
Quite simply, the Holocaust (also called the “Shoah”) was the “systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, he brought with him an ideology that described Germans as a superior race. Jews were described as inferior, untrustworthy, conniving, greedy, dirty, and traitors to the German “master race.” Laws were enacted to isolate Jews from the general populace, and eventually, to strip them of their businesses, property, and eventually, of their lives.
Hitler and his Nazi regime systematically rounded up Jews into ghettos. Laws were passed requiring Jews to wear yellow stars sewn to the outside of their clothing to identify them, their passports and identity papers marked with their Jewish identity. Soon, transports began. Jews were packed into cattle cars and transported along train tracks to concentration camps like Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, and Bergen-Belsen.
People were immediately catalogued upon arrival. (The Nazis kept meticulous records.) Some people were assigned to work camps. Others — the old, the pregnant, many children, in short, anyone they didn’t think was useful as a worker — were sent to “shower.” People were ordered to strip naked and forced into a special “shower” room, where instead of water, gas rained in. These were the gas chambers — an effective way to kill hundreds of people at a time all day and all night. Some bodies were then burned in crematoriums. When those became too overwhelmed to keep up with the number of bodies to be disposed of, mass graves were dug to dispose of the piles of bodies.
In 1933, there were nine million Jews in Europe. By 1945, there were only three million left. The Germans and their collaborators had killed 2 out of every 3 Jews in Europe. Although U.S. and Russian soldiers who liberated the concentration camps at the end of the war had known of the camps’ existence, the sheer quantity of death, as well as the appalling conditions of the people who barely survived, were shocking.
Although the majority of people killed in the Holocaust were Jewish, the Nazis had no fondness for any group that they deemed racially, socially, or politically inferior. They also exterminated at least 200,000 Roma (Gypsies), 200,000 people with disabilities, as well as people of Slavic descent, communists, socialists, political dissidents, and homosexuals.
In coming to terms with its own history, Germany has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors; the government has searched for Nazis and prosecuted them for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Some of them, decades later, when they were found hiding in the United State or South America or in plain sight.
In Germany today, it is illegal to display Nazi symbols like the swastika, and denying the Holocaust is a crime for which people stand trial. There are no monuments to Hitler or the Nazis. There are, however, in almost every town, monuments to those who lost their lives. Some of the larger concentration camps like Auschwitz (in Poland) and Dachau (in the suburbs of Munich) remain as museums to educate people about the atrocities. In large cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, Stolpersteine (literally, “stumbling stones”) have been installed in the pavement in front of the apartments and houses where people who died in the Holocaust had lived.
These stones shown in this photo read the names of the Levy Family and are installed in front of their house in Aachen, Germany. Each one reads “Here lived ______,” with their birth year listed. They all read “deported 1942, murdered in Theresienstadt” (name of the concentration camp).
Talking about the Holocaust and genocide may be uncomfortable, but it is important.
On Friday, August 11, the same date that white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied on the campus of the University of Virginia with their tiki torches, the world’s oldest man passed away in Israel. His name was Israel Kristal, he was 114 years old, and he was a Holocaust survivor.
Soon we will live in a world without Holocaust survivors — their numbers are dwindling as they succumb to old age. We will not have their physical presence, we will not be able to see and touch the skin that was tattooed with numbers by their Nazi captors in the concentration camps. We will not have the opportunity to hear their voices crack with emotion retelling their personal stories of losing their families, their friends, their synagogues, their towns, and of their own hope for survival.
Filmmakers and documentarians have scrambled to record these stories before they disappear. Movies like Shoah and projects like Steven Spielberg’s film and video archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum work to preserve that history.
Yet many Jews and other minorities hear the very real echoes of history in current events, in the resurgence of dangerous groups and ideologies which covet and idolize such a abhorrent part of world history. What’s more, many people in the U.S. do not even have basic knowledge of the Holocaust. While I remember learning about the Holocaust in middle school, currently only eight states in the country have mandated Holocaust and genocide education (California, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island). If we do not know the past, how can we make sure not to repeat it?
In April, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect announced a 50-state genocide education project, and they have already made some progress to ensure that American students learn about the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and other genocides. Twenty-six legislators from 20 states have committed to introducing legislation which would require public schools in their states to teach this history.
As one of them, Louisiana Representative Beryl Amedee (R) said: “I have had the opportunity to visit Holocaust museums in New York and Washington, DC. During one visit, I overheard a student ask one of her classmates, ‘Why should I care if all these people were killed before I was even born?’ Her question stunned me! At that moment, choking back tears, I made a commitment in my heart to do what I can to be sure future generations learn about our collective history.”
White nationalists in this country do not simply have different political values. They wish for the total annihilation of black people, of Jews, of anyone they see as a threat to the “white race.” Their motives are not political. They are violent. It is up to us to make sure that we educate ourselves, our communities, and yes, in age-appropriate ways, our children, about the history of the Holocaust. Not only to “never forget,” but to stop hatred-fueled violence in its tracks. To commit ourselves to saying not here, not now, and not ever, ever again.
Check here to see if your state requires Holocaust education. If it doesn’t, find your state legislator and ask them to introduce a state mandate.
Learn more about the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.