Like so many of my generation of Jewish-Americans, I grew up with Holocaust survivors as a part of the fabric of my daily life. Both of my step-parents were hidden children. I had classmates whose parents had survived as teen slave-laborers in death camps. The twin sister of a leader in our synagogue endured horrific medical experiments at the hands of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor.
All these people have been on my mind in recent weeks, as the light of day has shined on long-ignored antisemitism in Massachusetts schools. In February, a Lowell school committee member called the school’s former finance director a ‘kike’ on live TV. He followed up with “I hate to say it but that’s what people used to say behind his back.”
Then, last month came the news that the Duxbury high school football team used antisemitic and Holocaust references as audible play calls in a game. It was further revealed that they’ve been using this language in practice for years.
The school committee member and the coach have since resigned, but let us pause to underscore that “people” heard this language being used for “years.” Colleagues in Lowell? The players, staff, or coaches in Duxbury?
People knew. And they said nothing.
This past Monday in New York City, a 65-year-old Asian woman was kicked repeatedly in the head and body as she lay helpless on the sidewalk. A 38-year old convicted murderer has been charged with the hate crime.
The video is horrifying in its brutality, but I was even more alarmed by the reaction of the bystanders. A delivery man simply watches from a few feet away. A security guard (since suspended) literally steps forward to close the building’s glass door, while the woman lies bleeding on the sidewalk right in front of him.
We have a problem. It is a failure to know and understand the history of genocide and the lessons of that history. It’s a generation being raised with chasmic moral blind spots; it is the dangerous implications of raising bystanders instead of upstanders.
There are many steps we need to take as a society to deal with these issues. One key action is mandating genocide education in our schools.
A 2018 study found that Holocaust memory is fading. Forty-five percent of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp. Sixty-six percent of youth 18 to 34 didn’t recognize the word “Auschwitz.”
Here in Massachusetts, there are many great resources for educating about the Holocaust and Genocide, including curricula and programs from our partners such as Facing History and Ourselves. But these are electives, not requirements. This is why JCRC, along with ADL New England and the Armenian Assembly of America, are championing An Act to Mandate Genocide Education (HD.1167/SD.1592).
This effort is led by Rep. Jeff Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who have been working tirelessly for years with a broad bipartisan coalition of supporters to bring this legislation to a vote and enactment. This week they received a vigorous endorsement from both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. ADL is urging Massachusetts residents to contact their representatives in support of this effort.
Yom HaShoah is next Thursday. We will commemorate this day on Sunday, April 11th at 2pm, with our annual communitywide ceremony: Preserving our Collective Memory, featuring reflections from survivors in our community.
The youngest child survivors, the parents of my friends, are now in their late seventies. Those teen slave laborers still able to tell their stories are now in their nineties. We’ve been blessed over the years to become witnesses to their experiences. We are now in the final years that a new generation of Americans are able to receive that witness first-hand.
The most important things we can do right now to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on are: commit to transmitting this personal witness by attending survivor testimony events and inviting others to join us so long as these events are possible, and; advocate for a mandated genocide education curriculum that will ensure that their memories will endure as a lesson for future generations.
The time to act is now. We owe this to those survivors we have been blessed to know, who survived, against all odds, and to those who were taken from us during the Shoah.
Please join us in this sacred and necessary work.