What have we learned from Elie Wiesel?

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What have we learned from Elie Wiesel?  If history is doomed to repeat itself, then why do so many people believe that the Holocaust can never happen again?  Why are people so quick to forget Bosnia, link Cambodia to Viet Nam, think Rwanda happened because of misunderstanding?  Why are more people not outraged at the plight of refugees in Europe or, for that fact, those Rohingya Muslims pouring into Bangladesh – a country that can barely survive the weight of it’s own population?

My second year students were asked to read Night a few weeks ago.  In the weeks leading up to a short quiz I would ask my students what they thought about the readings.  Silence.  Crickets.  Were they so moved they couldn’t speak?  Were they traumatized by the gut wrenching imagery Wiesel used?  Don’t be daft Renee – they haven’t read this and won’t until the night before the quiz.  

As the last quiz takers finished one day in early October I asked the class again what they thought about the book.  One young man who rarely speaks in class put his hand over his heart and said ” my heart is so heavy – I’m lost”.  Others spoke of the appalling conditions in which so many perished and yet a few survived.  One spoke of Wiesel’s Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech.

The quiz had four questions.  The first asked for a meaningful or favorite quote.  Mine is the passage when a nameless Jew says “I have more faith in Hitler than anyone else.  He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people”. Think about that as you listen to your politicians make campaign promises.  I asked them if they thought Wiesel found his faith again and if there was anything about the book that surprised them.  Keep in mind that most of these students had read this book once before in high school so I am looking for signs of growth; for students to tell me how this second reading as adults has changed their initial impressions or has a different meaning.

The fourth question – and the reason for today’s blog post was – “Do you think humanity has learned it’s lesson from the Holocaust?  Could this happen again.”  A full 40% of my class believes that we did learn our lesson and something like this could never happen again.  To be clear, I questioned the class again after marking their quizzes, do you think this could happen again? 

 I’m utterly baffled that college students today believe that the world would not allow for the mass killing of innocent women, children, and men.

Of course, I have students who are quick to point out the reason for Black Lives Matter or the recent restlessness of white supremacy in the US.  My point is more this, have we become so desensitized to the urgency that phobias create that we believe we are immune to the result?  Have we reared a generation of citizens who truly believe that justice is for all ?  By telling them that everyone is a winner they believe their responsibility to the rest of humanity is negligible?  By “we” I want to shift the burden back to us – the adults who should know better.  The people who must lead this generation and show them every choice matters, including the seemingly unimportant ones.

No – we have not learned our lesson.  Yes – the Holocaust can happen again.  Perhaps it will not be the attempted extinction of the world’s Jewish population, but it could be the group of people who most resemble ourselves.  Remember this the next time you are so willing to ignore a plea for help (which is really what Black Lives Matters is all about) or you want to know why women aren’t demonstrating in the streets over Harvey Weinstein  like they were Donald Trump’s election (hint – try not to re-victimize those already scared to speak).  Most importantly however, remember there is a difference between silence and quiet.  One is a choice and the other isn’t.

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