While there is a growing number of people who compare today’s America with murderous, racist, and xenophobic actions of “yesteryear,” no, we are not living through another Holocaust – Native American, African or Jewish.
Let’s get that sentence out of the way first so that everyone is able to keep reading without losing their shit. This political era has been so emotionally triggering so often, for so many, that I was reticent to even give this article a title, or even a byline, for fear of its words being placed through the digital shredder on sight.
Deeply listening and absorbing without instantly reacting is a struggle for everyone right now. I suppose if you’ve reached this sentence it’s a minor miracle, and I hope you continue on from here.
My parents are moving this month, so I’ve been doing my fair share of rummaging through old boxes. During that process, I encountered a letter I received in 2010 from the late Holocaust survivor and prolific writer and humanitarian Elie Wiesel. It should be noted that, to his critics, Wiesel was far from perfect, and some accuse him of shining a light on some human rights abuses while seemingly minimizing others.
With that said, his name is nearly synonymous with Holocaust literature and the movement to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are not repeated. His memoir “Night” is taught in countless classrooms throughout the world, having been translated into 30 languages.
During my first year of teaching in Philadelphia, my students wrote him letters after reading his memoir. In May of that year, the class received a response:
Thank you for your letters. I always enjoy hearing from young people, and your letters were no exception. I am moved to learn of the effect that my memoir, Night, had on you. As a writer, nothing is more important. From your words, it is obvious that you are very sensitive to the darkness of which I wrote.
Knowing that you will never forget the tragedies of the past gives me hope. You can use your knowledge and understanding to educate those who are unaware. You can make a difference in creating a new kind of century.
Keep learning and reading, more and more.
With best, best wishes to you -and to your teacher-
I still remember what it felt like to open and read this letter in private, hands trembling, eyes tearing. I more vividly remember how it felt to read this to a class of expectant students, some of whom realized for the first time in that moment the power of language, writing and authentic audience.
In a short letter, Wiesel conveyed both his appreciation and his hope for the future, a hope he carried with him up until his recent death. He also revealed an understanding of the big picture—the reason for teaching, learning and leading. And for many, his voice warning against indifference resonates even louder now that he is gone.
Particularly after the child separation crisis at the border that emblazoned images of children in cages on our collective conscience, I have seen an influx of debates and think pieces on the acceptability of comparing current conditions to those of the pre-Jewish Holocaust era.
I don’t believe all of these comparisons are accurate. But how privileged are we to engage in this debate from places of comfort and safety? As we hold intellectual discussions in ivory towers, others are experiencing unimaginable suffering at the border—and in our own cities. Much of this suffering is sanctioned or ignored by an administration seemingly devoid of ethical leadership.
For those suffering, the historical comparisons are less important than the existential anguish of their reality. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not, “What is this most like?” but rather, “How can we assure ‘never again’ in all lands and for all peoples?”
This isn’t one of the Holocausts, but we are living through a prolonged national tragedy of hate and abdication that will be named and renounced by historians at a later date. The demagoguery, the propaganda, the celebration of xenophobia, the lies, the silencing of dissidents, the discrediting of the media, the corruption, the hateful and calcified discriminatory policies, the faux nationalism, the rampant Islamophobia, the disrespect and oppression of immigrants, including those seeking asylum, the expanding inequality, the cloak of religiosity, the promise to restore cultural values and greatness, the dismantling of government institutions, the white supremacy, and the consolidation of power across all branches of government are a toxic mix by any name.
And if we are more outraged by the historical comparisons than we are motivated to safeguard our democracy, we have not learned from history—we have merely been witness to it. The Holocaust wasn’t the Holocaust until it was.
The camps were the last piece, coming well after a deliberate and creeping brand of fascism infiltrated Germany over many years. To so many, Hitler’s rise was a fever that would break. His fanatical use of scapegoating, racism, and sexism, and his manipulation of the fearful and the broken were unlikely, they believed, to be accepted by large majorities. In the end they were not, with 33 percent of the population voting for the Nazi Party in the last recorded free election in 1932. This is a mere footnote to the history that followed.
I shudder to consider how our current political era will ultimately be named, described, and judged. The history is still being written. What will follow is, ultimately, up to us, as it was for citizens who witnessed other atrocities.
Wiesel wrote in his letter, “You can make a difference in creating a new kind of century.”
I carry the weight of this line with me, even on my most hopeless and cynical of days. I hope my students carry it too, wherever they are and wherever they may go. Let us step back and view the world from the lucid, compassionate eyes of the children we once were. And let us be sure that when our children look upon our words and actions during these sobering times that they are inspired and not ashamed.
For it matters not what this era is called. It matters what is done.