Reflection and Tolerance from Holocaust Education

By Elizabeth Perry

In 1975, Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum was outside his home in Kansas City playing basketball with his family. A neighbor of theirs came over to chat – he was a nice guy, Jack remembered. He knew that Jack had survived the holocaust, had been in a concentration camp, and so asked, “What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camp?” Shocked, Jack looked back at him and said, “The sport was that the Nazis were trying to kill me and I was trying to stay alive.” Mandelbaum could not believe the lack of knowledge people had of what really happened, of the effects of the Holocaust. And so in 1993 he helped found the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) in order to spread this information. Ignorance, as Jack knew, was dangerous.

A couple of weeks ago, a story in the news brought Mandelbaum’s words back to me. On April 13, 2014, Frazier Glenn Cross drove to the Jewish Community Center, where the MCHE is located, and Village Shalom retirement community in Overland Park, where he shot and killed three people. The Overland Park police announced that this act is considered a hate crime, with Cross shouting “Heil Hitler” as he was arrested. His apparent intention in this attack was to kill Jews, but none of the three victims he shot were Jewish.

For the past three and a half months, I have been interning at the MCHE, transcribing testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Jack and helped correct transcripts of the interviews to make them available for the MCHE’s website. As I watched the news reports from the Jewish Community Center, I felt frustrated. I had spent my internship listening to survivors for whom the persecution and loss of their past is still present and haunting. Some of them are the only surviving members of their family. Each survivor interview I listened to had a standard format, ending each time with the question, “What can we learn from the Holocaust?” So many times, the interviewee said we must learn to be tolerant, respect others, and be compassionate, so that this kind of tragedy can never happen again. For a moment, as I watched the news of the shooting, I felt as if I had stepped backward and nothing had changed. But, perhaps it only proves how important it is to make the consequences of destructive hatred known.

Historians often approach oral histories and survivor testimonies for the unique, everyday perspective they provide on major historical events. Indeed, the interviews do provide additional context for the Nazis’ gradual persecution through restrictive laws, the method of deportations, daily life at Auschwitz, the escape of Jews to Shanghai, and other components of Holocaust history. Yet as I listened and transcribed to hour after hour of these tapes, I ended up finding an even greater significance in these stories. Beyond the details of the Holocaust they also vividly portray the depth of the destruction to the lives, families, and communities of millions of Jews. They lost businesses and homes, watched their friends and relatives be deported, shot, or sent to gas chambers, and witnessed the disintegration of conventional morality in concentration camps. Despite the fact that they are talking about events decades in the past, the effects of prejudice and dehumanization are still immediate for the survivors, many stating that the memories intrude on their lives on a daily basis. I couldn’t help but think to what degree such feelings of trauma returned as these survivors watched the events of last month unfold.

Yet while we often see deeper truths in the stories of the oppressed, we often do not consider what the histories of the oppressors can reveal. As we look at last month’s tragedy and the hate that spewed from Cross, for example, it is easy to dismiss the shooter as simply crazy. This makes it easy to distance ourselves from his actions and beliefs. But labeling men like Cross as crazy does not help reveal the complex reasons of why people hate. While there are undoubtedly many contributing factors, I believe that such strong hate stems mainly from ignorance – a lack of knowledge or experience with the world leads to stereotypes, to baseless fears of an ‘outsider,’ to the idea that one is somehow irreconcilably different from other people to the point that violence is the only conceivable answer. Cross, who has been surrounded by white supremacist ideas for most of his life, apparently lacked any meaningful exposure to Holocaust education. Ignorance, however, is fixable – this is why I believe education is a vital tool against hate.

The goal of the MCHE is to educate about the Holocaust and encourage reflection. Education helps foster tolerance, and tolerance mitigates hate. The organization makes this explicit in their mission statement:

Through a study of the Holocaust and the stories of the people who experienced it, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education seeks to increase compassion and understanding. We teach what can happen within a democratic society when hatred and bigotry go unchallenged. We encourage individual responsibility by showing how the actions of one person can make a difference. We relate the events of the past to contemporary issues of intolerance.

To serve these goals, the MCHE make resources available for students, teachers, and researchers to learn and teach the history of the Holocaust. The MCHE has presentations, seminars, and film series for the community to learn this history and what it means to their lives today. The White Rose Essay Contest for middle- and high-school students provides another opportunity, both to learn about the events of the Holocaust and to reflect on how they can act based on what they learned.

The MCHE emphasizes that it serves all faiths, as everyone can benefit from this knowledge. In fact, the MCHE emphasizes its goal to make connections with the non-Jewish community in Holocaust studies and education. They work with a variety of students, teachers, and researchers throughout the Greater Kansas City area in order to achieve their goals of tolerance and compassion through education. The Jewish Community Center fosters the same community connections. Many reporting on the shootings noted that the victims were not Jewish – this is because the Jewish Community Center serves the larger community of Overland Park. They provide fitness programs, youth activities, theater activities, art festivals, and more in an “inclusive environment.” The MCHE also promotes inclusiveness because Holocaust education provides an opportunity for all people to reflect on the violence of hate and how it can be prevented.

I believe this is the real root of history education – history is not just a chronicle of what happened and who lived and died, but the evolution of actions and ideas. History education helps us understand why our world is the way it is, and shows the origins and development of ideas and events we otherwise take for granted. By reflecting on what we learn from history, we can understand how our beliefs and actions affect other people and the world around us. We can encourage tolerance and understanding, so that people can understand hatred for what it is and take action against it. As I worked on the transcripts, I felt this was also my goal – I helped provide the stories of those that witnessed the destruction caused by unchecked racial hatred. Hopefully I helped create the tools for others to learn that hatred destroys lives.

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