Read, read, read. —William Faulkner
I remember every story that I have ever had a chance to read. In fourth grade, I learned about Anne Frank and her life spent in hiding with her family over a group of people, heavily influenced by, and under the orders of, one of the most evil men in the world. As a child, I didn’t quite understand the reason behind it: why were Anne and her family persecuted? Why were people being sent away? Why were so many people’s lives lost? More importantly, why was any of it okay to do?
All of these questions sat in the back of my mind until high school when my English teacher introduced me to Martin Niemöller’s poem–one of its many variations– ‘First They Came’. This poem was a prelude to one of the most important books that I’ve ever had a chance to read: Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’. Night is a memoir, a chronicle of his experience with his father in Nazi German concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Calling Elie Wiesel’s book impactful simply doesn’t do it any justice. The book transports you, absolutely every step of the way, through everything he experienced within these camps and before you realize it, you’re already a passenger in his narrative.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night
It wasn’t until I caught an excerpt from a news segment earlier this month that I realized how profoundly lucky I was to have been exposed to learning about the Holocaust, because as it turns out, Holocaust education isn’t mandatory in a majority of states across the country: Per the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), only 15 states out of 50 require incorporating it in their secondary school curricula. In fact, according to a study conducted by Pews Research Center at the beginning of the year, two thirds of American teens don’t know that Hitler came to power through a democratic political process nor do they know what Auschwitz was.
At first, I couldn’t make sense as to why tourists, particularly those in the younger demographic would pose and take selfies at locations linked directly to the deaths of 6M+ Jews, not factoring in other ethnic groups, political opponents, and activists. “…There are better places to learn how to walk on a balance beam than the site which symbolizes deportation of hundreds of thousands to their deaths,” tweeted the organizers at the Auschwitz Museum. When I look back at Pews’ research, it makes sense that this would be attributed to lack of knowledge, but more troubling is the fact that according to a 2014 article published by The Atlantic, only 54% of people worldwide have heard of the Holocaust. Even though these statistics are from 6 years ago, there are two important takeaways:
- There is still a general lack of knowledge about the Holocaust
- There are people in the world that believe that the Holocaust was a myth or at the very least, largely exaggerated
I try to think about how anyone can think of the Holocaust as some kind of scary bedtime story; an event so heinous that clearly could never be true because people aren’t evil enough, let alone smart enough to go through with it for as long as they were able to. I try to fathom how over 6 million people’s lives lost simply isn’t powerful enough to warrant awareness or if maybe it’s those same numbers that are just unimaginable to begin with. Then I think about the Holocaust Museums all over the world, about how to this day you can visit Anne Frank’s house. Every single museum has on printed record, pictures of victims and survivors, newspaper clippings, and a plethora of anti-semitic propaganda. There are books and movies that continue to be released. There are memorial sites with the numbers that every person ever sent to a concentration camp was literally branded with, and to this day, there are still a number of Holocaust survivors telling their story.
And yet, only a little over half of the world’s population have heard of the Holocaust. This percentage isn’t even clear about whether people that have heard of it actually validate its existence and place in history. In fact, the ADL reports that there are 1,090,000,000 people in the world that harbor anti-semitic views since their last report in 2019. From this report, they found that 2 of every 3 people surveyed either did not know what the Holocaust was or did not believe the history and statistics behind it to be accurate, viewing them as exaggerated.
Since 2016, our country has been under close scrutiny by nations all around the world, and various ethnic groups have been greatly affected over the course of practically four years ranging from infringement on Native American rights to deportations, an increase in detention facilities, and a resurgence of alt-right groups across the country. In case none of that is enough, there’s warning of a potential civil war by these same groups, depending on next month’s election results. During this time, I’ve heard a lot of different opinions for what my demographic as a Mexican immigrant is going through: I’ve heard comparisons made on President Trump and Hitler and how both are eerily similar based on their campaigns all the way to their support groups. I’ve also heard a comparison between concentration camps and detention centers, especially over the last few months with the increase in deaths this year, rape and involuntary sterilizations.
Those of us most familiar with the English language or have knowledge on idioms know of the famous saying “Ignorance is bliss.” There are many events in our lives that sometimes we feel we’re better off not knowing. In Mexico, there’s something similar which translates to “Eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel”. Typically I’d argue in favor of it, but events–no, genocides– and other wrong-doings that could lead up to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, should never be ignored nor should they be made less than what they are.
I’m a Mexican raised Catholic. The closest link I have to European history of any sort is my grandfather who emigrated from France to Mexico in the 1920’s towards the end of Pancho Villa’s life and when the Jewish population in France was approximately 150,000. This was also around the same time when the Faisceau were at their highest and argumentatively lobbied for the immediate exclusion of Jews and foreigners as they perceived them to be both a threat to their nation and race. While I did not have a direct relation, my ancestors did. Because of it, it’s my duty to remain informed and read about what did and could have affected them.
It’s the stories of the people that go through these events and those that we only read due to their passing, their bravery in re-telling whether through spoken word or prose, that help us learn in an effort to never have to repeat history twice. We do a disservice to every Holocaust survivor when we don’t listen to them or read what they have to teach us. It should never be an option to dismiss an event of such magnitude just because it did not directly affect us or our history at first glance, because in actuality, it does.
It’s just like Niemöller’s poem: we don’t speak out because we’re not affected; but once we are, who’s going to be there to speak out for us? Who’s going to tell our story?