I had the opportunity to join some of my fellow State of Formation scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum earlier this week for a day-long workshop, and I found it very productive. The discussions and exhibit tours were deeply emotionally arresting, while allowing all of us time to reflect on how the Holocaust radically changed the course of human history and what lessons are applicable to our current historical moment. While one of my fellow contributors and I will be working together on an article in response to the meeting which will be published in the near future, I feel it is necessary for me to try to process some of my own thoughts about my experience while it is still fresh in my mind.
For me, one of the most important questions to ask and to attempt to answer is how seemingly easily and quickly people turned on their Jewish neighbors and assisted in their persecution.
As a Jew, I feel that while no answer may ever be satisfactory, trying to find explanations is important. This is because doing so informs both the historical consciousness of what was happening during that time in various parts of Europe, but also our understanding of other recent genocidal enterprises. The refugee crisis in Europe due to the situation in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East today has historical parallels to what happened to Jews and other groups trying to flee Europe before, during and after the Holocaust.
One of the discussions during our visit dealt with the current humanitarian crisis in Europe, in which the presenter showed photographs from her experiences in Europe last year. One picture was from the march across the Elizabeth bridge in Budapest from the Keleti train station, which had been closed to refugees trying to leave Budapest. The picture showed people sitting having lunch at a café on the sidewalk while the refugees marched by, and none of those sitting in the café acknowledged the refugees walking right by them. This one picture encapsulated for me the question of why and how people can be so seemingly indifferent to people in need who are literally right in front of them. Thankfully, there were Hungarian volunteers as well as people from other places who assisted the refugees.
There was also a picture of a sign that made the point that this assistance was explicitly from the Hungarian people, not their government. Many of the governments in the area were using and continue to use the refugee crisis to promote fear and distrust. They made statements about how they would only accept Christian, not Muslim refugees, due to possible infiltrators using the crisis as cover to enter Europe. While this may or may not be a legitimate fear, I feel that to refuse to take in people who are obviously in need is deplorable, especially as it is coupled with the stereotype that all Muslims are a threat until proven otherwise.
Everyone shares the common bond of humanity – which is a point I have always asserted in discussions about these topics as I feel it can be lost or overlooked sometimes – wherever they come from. Distancing oneself from other people can eventually lead to prejudice and mistrust, which was one of many factors in the persecution of the Jews and other groups before, during and after the Holocaust.
One of my fellow contributors, Abigail, made the point that religious faith can and should be used and promoted as an antidote to fear by creating hope and possibility. This shows the power that religion has as a motivator for social change in our own time. Figuring out how best to use religious language and belief to further social justice goals is an important discussion and it is one to which I am proud to be able to contribute.
Image Credit: Author.