Holocaust historians teach to ensure peace for the future
by Monica Czernek (Sun Staff Writer)
To eighth graders today, the Holocaust might seem like a foreign, faraway tale. After all, it happened more than 50 years ago in Europe. The horrific stories and images of the Second World War have been relegated to the dusty pages of history books, and many people would like to believe a tragedy like the Holocaust could never happen again. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth, according to Andreas Feuerstein and Heinz Boesch. The two Austrians spoke to eighth grade history classes at Winnemucca Junior High School last week.
“We study history so we can learn from our mistakes. The Holocaust was not the last genocide in the 20th century. These things happened in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994, and most recently Kosovo. We are not learning from history.” – Andreas
Andreas and Heinz do not look like World War II historians. They are 22 and 25 years old, respectively. With their shaggy haircuts and retro clothing, they might be ambassadors from the European club scene. But their message is a serious one, and it is not mitigated by their ages. If anything, they argue, young people should be most sensitive to the lessons of the Holocaust. After all, it is up to them to ensure peace for future generations. Andreas and Heinz have dedicated more than a year of their lives to communicating this message to the young people of northern Nevada.
The two men are Gedenkdienst (commemorative service) interns with the Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies at the Unviersity of Nevada, Reno. They are volunteering at the center in lieu of military service in their home country. UNR’s center is dedicated to spreading the word about the causes and effects of genocide, with the hopes that education can prevent the repeating of history.
Genocide does not happen overnight. Anti-Semitism in Europe dates back to the Middle Ages, fed by self-perpetuating stereotypes. Jews were forbidden from owning land or learning trades; therefore , they were forced to make their living as merchants. In turn, the stereotype of the money-hungry Jew was born.
By the 20th century, European Jews were able to transcend prejudice and bild a rich culture. Temples sprang up all over Europe. The writings of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud gained worldwide acclaim. Still, the stereotypes were deep-seeded. As the Nazi party rose to power, their anti-Semitic beliefs slowly gained credibility among ordinary people. Jews were ostracized, their differences highlighted, and before long many decent Christians honestly belived that Jews were inferior.
“These people didn’t choose to be different.” – Andreas
Jewish people were not the only victims of the Holocaust. Gypsies, homosexuals and almost anyone whose political or religious beliefs opposed the mainstream ideology were enemies to the Nazi regime. In almost all cases, these life threatening differences were not self-imposed. People were singled out, tortured, and killed simply because they were born different.
“If you believe that someone is less than human, it is not such a crime to kill them” – Andreas
The dehumanization of the “different people starts with racial and cultural stereotyps. The very concept that one person is inherently superior to another is at the heart of genocide. During World War II, outsiders wer further dehumanized. Jews were forced to prominently wear a Star of David badge, gay pepole wore a pink badge, and so forth. In concentration camps, prisoners were called by numbers instead of names. Such categories and labels strip away the essence of humanity, numbing the feelings of horror which the Holocaust should incite.
“It starts with little things, like making jokes about people who are different. These things still go on.” – Andreas
So what can a class of eigth graders from Winnemucca learn from the Holocaust? A great deal, according to Andreas and Heinz. Prejudice is still real. Dangerous stereotypes about race, religion, and sexuality are part of our cultural lexicon.
It is up to the young people to ignore those stereotypes and accept that every human being is a complex individual who is in no way inferior because of his or her differences.
Even more imporantly, it is up to the younger generation to understand and remember the roots of the Holocaust, and always look out for the warning signs. By the time these teenagers are teaching their own children to be fair and respectful to others, there may not be any World War II survivors to visit classrooms and give lectures.
Andreas and Heinz hope that if enough young people embrace the lessons of the Holocaust, the world won’t need another generation of genocide survivors to convey the importance of tolerance and peace.
“Peace is not only understand why things happened, or that they happened, but how to prevent them.” – Andreas
For information about UNR’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Peace Studies, write to: Dr. Viktoria Hertling, University of Nevada, Reno (402)/Reno, NV 89557.