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 stepparents 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 doctor of Auschwitz.
All these people have been on my mind in recent weeks, as the light of day has shined on long-ignored anti-Semitism in Massachusetts schools. In February, a Lowell School Committee member called the district’s former finance director a “kike” on live local cable 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 anti-Semitic and Holocaust references as audible play calls. It was further revealed they’ve been using this language for years.
The School Committee member resigned and the football coach was fired, 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.
On March 29 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 memory of the Holocaust 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” – one of the terms the Duxbury players reportedly used as play calls.
Here in Massachusetts, there are many great resources for educating about the Holocaust and genocide, including curricula and programs from our partners such as the global nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. But these are electives, not requirements. This is why the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, along with the Anti-Defamation League of New England and the Armenian Assembly of America, are championing An Act to Mandate Genocide Education to the state Legislature.
This effort is led by Representative Jeff Roy of Franklin and Senator Michael Rodrigues of Westport, who have been working tirelessly for years with a broad bipartisan coalition of supporters to bring this legislation to a vote and enactment. They recently received a vigorous endorsement from both The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. The ADL is urging Massachusetts residents to contact their representatives in support of this effort.
Yom HaShoah is Thursday, April 8. The Jewish Community Relations Council will commemorate this Day of Remembrance on Sunday, April 11 at 2 p.m., with an online communitywide ceremony: “Preserving our Collective Memory: Bridging Generations,” featuring reflections from survivors in our community.
The youngest child survivors – the parents of my friends – are now in their late 70s. Those teen slave-laborers still able to tell their stories are now in their 90s. 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 is able to receive that witness firsthand.
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 to advocate for a mandated genocide education curriculum that will ensure 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.
Jeremy Burton is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.