As I pulled in to the parking lot of the synagogue this past Sunday, I noticed not one, but two, city police cars parked at either end. I was caught off guard, but only for a split second.
Places for religious worship used to be safe havens. So were our schools. Theaters, too. Restaurants, the workplace, and shopping malls—virtually anywhere—as well.
But no more.
Even in this small-ish northeastern Ohio city, at an interfaith Yom HaShoah service to honor the victims of the world’s largest hate crime, there was police presence. I walked inside feeling hollow.
I was here as the featured speaker for this annual spring event, always held the week of National Holocaust Remembrance Day. I had been the speaker once before, fifteen years earlier, but so much had changed. In the world. In my life.
After taking my seat up behind the pulpit, I couldn’t help but wonder where I would duck should bullets start flying. I felt sick. Everything was made of wood. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize every person who came in after me, just in case the uniformed officer standing guard missed one. It was disconcerting, and I could feel my anxiety growing.
But the program started as planned, and soon it was time for me to address the audience.
Today, we are gathered for National Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to remember the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust for no other reason than because they were Jewish. Those we should Never Forget. Those who had lives and families and friends and pets and jobs and hobbies and stories.
Some perspective—and perhaps you’ve heard this statistic before: If we held one minute of silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we’d be silent for eleven and a half years.
I started learning about the Holocaust 25 years ago when I took a course to move up the salary schedule in the district. I only needed a few hours to make a little more money, and it sounded like an interesting course. Plus, it was at a nearby university. And only two weeks long. I didn’t know it would change my life.
The more I learned, the more I couldn’t believe; human beings actually treated others that way? And as a new mom, I couldn’t imagine someone taking away my little girls just because they didn’t live up to someone else’s “racial standards.” It was horrifying. And I knew I had to teach about it.
So when our district decided to move to a block schedule and needed more elective courses, I created one on the Holocaust and started teaching it. That was 1997.
People asked me all the time, and sometimes still do, are you Jewish? Like that’s the only reason you can teach about it? But I’m not. And I was raised that being Jewish is just the same as being Catholic. Or being Methodist. You go to a different church.
Shortly after I started teaching the new course, I went on a study tour to Poland and Israel, becoming a kind of witness. At least geographically. We visited the death camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka, as well as sites in the Warsaw Ghetto. We also studied at Yad Vashem for two weeks, hearing scholars and survivors alike, several times a day.
And soon, hate mail, or at least that’s what I call it, started arriving in my school mailbox: revisionist pamphlets and questionnaires denying the Holocaust happened or asking questions like, why teach about the Jews? Why not slavery? Or what about Native Americans? But you can’t compare tragedies—that doesn’t make sense. You can’t rank people’s pain or horrors or sadness.
And I liked to use the Holocaust as a specific example to learn many lessons from anyway. It was my own passion to share with students.
After I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time in D.C., I knew I wanted to take students there, and that’s when antisemitism reared its head on my own local school board. It became quite a public issue, and because of it, I remember a reporter asking me, are you on some mission to save the world? I was taken aback. Why does it have to a mission? Can’t it be simply teaching and understanding?
As I continued learning and teaching, I became more and more involved in Holocaust education, and I was chosen by the Holocaust Museum in D.C. to be a part of their Regional Education Corps. I workshopped and presented to teachers across the nation, and in doing so, thought it was important to let people know my background and the context in which I teach: that I’m not Jewish, and I teach in a small, rural district with not much diversity. And one time it backfired. I was on a high, having workshopped teachers in the San Francisco Bay area for three days, when a woman approached me afterwards. “Aimee, you made it very clear that you are from a small, rural town and that you are not Jewish. What right do you think you have to teach about this then?” she accused. And as I struggled for an answer, she turned and left. But today, I know what I would say to her. I know how I’d respond. The Holocaust is not simply Jewish history, it’s human history, and that’s what right I have.
The more survivors I met, the better I felt about what I was teaching, because their message was clear: Never forget. Don’t hate. Please. It could happen again. Tell our stories.
But then my own story happened to me, and I had to take care of myself. Divorce, heart attack, car accident. A month in the hospital. Returning to the classroom. PTSD. A decision to earn my master’s degree in writing, which provided other teaching opportunities. I had lost steam and emotional fortitude after more than a quarter century teaching about the Holocaust anyway, so when my course schedule filled with college level classes, I decided maybe it was best, and I five years ago, I stopped teaching the Holocaust as a semester long course. The museum’s regional education corps also lost its funding and folded. My career as Holocaust educator faded.
But then something funny happened. I believe in the signs around us, you see. And these past five years that I haven’t been teaching about the Holocaust, I’ve heard from more former students than ever, citing all the reasons the class was significant to them and growing up to be “tolerant” in a world that seems to have forgotten what that means. Yes, the universe stepped in and scolded me, because history has and is and will continue to repeat itself. And I need to do my part as an educator.
Because when you don’t speak out against hatred, if you leave it unattended, you’re saying it’s okay, and it’s not.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are over a thousand active hate groups in the United States today, and 36 of those are here in Ohio. As if that isn’t startling enough, at least three years ago, Ohio was 3rd in the nation for reports of hate crime incidents. In 2017, the FBI reported that hate crimes had increased across the nation by 17% in just one year—more than seven thousand hate crime incidents were reported. A combined 80% of those crimes were race/ethnicity or religion related, and unfortunately, especially as we have seen reflected in the news lately, between 2016-1027, anti-Jewish hate crimes spiked 37 %.
In closing, let me share the results of a study that came out last winter: 11% of adults and 22% of millennials in the United States haven’t heard of or aren’t sure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust. Almost half of US adults (45%) and Millennials (49%) cannot name one concentration camp or ghetto, and there are more than 40,000 in number. Most Americans (80%) have not visited a Holocaust museum and two-thirds do not know or know of a Holocaust survivor. And yet, virtually all US adults (93%) believe students should learn about the Holocaust in school, and 80% say it’s important to keep teaching about it so it doesn’t happen again.
There’s a quote by Eva Fleischner that goes, “The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out, etc., the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering whenever they occur.”
And isn’t that our responsibility to each other as humans? To become sensitized and do something? Just as survivors have asked?
So next year, I’m teaching my class again. And I’m looking forward to it.
But what will you do to help remember the Holocaust and fight hatred?
The service came to a close, then, and I was relieved. Nothing had gone wrong.
Those in the audience crowded around me afterward, eager to talk, give thanks, and ask more questions. A few even scolded me for not teaching my Holocaust course the past few years.
“I suppose you had to take care of yourself,” one elderly lady even said, “but . . .” and her voice trailed off. Looking down, she shrugged and walked away. Smiling.
And I drove home.