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Staring into the abyss at the death camps; why Holocaust education matters

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Jordana Lebowitz speaking at the United Nations on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. YOSSI MAY PHOTO

Six years ago, in April 2012, I was a participant on the March of the Living. The experience changed my life; it shaped my passions, molded my dreams. As I walked the blood-stained streets of Poland, where so many of my ancestors were murdered, I felt a deep connection – to those who pulled through the suffering with every last breath of hope, and those who did not make it to liberation day. I developed an understanding of humanity, the power that we possess, the resilience that we can harness and, yes, the evil that can be sparked within us. I learned a profound lesson on that trip: evil is not performed by evil men, but by regular people who act on the evil potential inside them. I saw the ashes, the crematoria, the piles of hair, suitcases and shoes. I touched the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers. I smelled the fear and heard the screams that once permeated through the camps.

I needed to know more. I needed to do more.

Hedy Bohm, a Holocaust survivor, accompanied us on that trip. I quickly learned to admire her strength and courage, her faith in humanity – her faith in me. Exiting the gas chambers in Auschwitz, I had broken down in sobs, unable to comprehend the scene I had just witnessed. As I looked over at Bohm, I could not understand how she could return here all these years later after the atrocities she personally experienced. At that moment, she pulled me close, and with her forehead to mine, she said softly: “I do this for you.”

That’s when it hit me: these brave survivors relive the horrors of their childhoods in the land of their imprisonment – in many cases returning year after year – so that we can learn and share and ensure that such atrocities never happen again.

READ: HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS INTERACT WITH YOUNG JEWISH ADULTS AT DINNER OF MIRACLES

I left a poem of my own composition at Auschwitz. It reads:
“Today we march,/We march for the victims,/We march for the survivors,/For their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers,/We march for our people,/Remembering our past,/When we march together,/We make memories last,/We are strong and we are everlasting,/We stand together,/United forever,/Humanity’s torch will never be extinguished,/As long as we keep our history in our hearts,/We march for the victims,/We march for the survivors,/We march to honour life,/We March for the Living.”

Staring into the abyss at the death camps, I could not accept that this was the end of the story. It couldn’t be. I could do my part to make the world a more tolerant place – for those who perished and those who survived. I adopted Holocaust education as my calling. I interned at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal and the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne.

In 2015, I designed an immersive and interactive exhibit housed inside a replica of a cattle car used to transport victims to the concentration camps. The exhibit was placed at the centre of the University of Guelph, where I was studying. In the two days that it was on display, it attracted more than 2,000 visitors. Some had learned bits and pieces of this history prior to seeing it. Some had never heard the word “Holocaust” before. All exited the cattle car changed – infused with knowledge, appreciation and purpose.
That same year, I accompanied the survivors I had met on March of the Living – Bohm, along with Max Eisen and Bill Glied – to Luneburg, Germany, to witness the trial of Oskar Groening.
(All three testified against him.) In that courtroom, Groening, who would be convicted as an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and sentenced to four years in prison, described how he voluntarily joined the SS; how he believed in Hitler’s cause; how he witnessed the gassings and killings, including when an infant was smashed against the side of a truck and thrown away.
The prosecuting lawyer addressed Groening: “Behind me sit survivors and their children. Could you imagine at the time (in Auschwitz), that a Jew would leave the camp alive and have children?”

“No,” Groening replied after a long pause.

READ: CONFERENCE TO FOCUS ON THE FUTURE OF HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

Later, a man approached me in court, attempting to convince me that the Holocaust did not happen. I wanted to run, but I knew that I had to stay. I had to speak. If we let people say that the Holocaust did not happen, then we risk it happening again. As one of my mentors, Irwin Cotler, often says: the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.

Well, if the Shoah was indeed sparked by words, then it stands to reason that we can prevent it from ever happening again with words, too. And that’s why I stand here now at the United Nations, the epicentre of protecting human rights and freedoms worldwide. We have the power to learn from the past and build a better future.At Auschwitz, and later at the Groening trial, I learned about the power of humanity – the potential for us to succeed, to transform, even to destroy. I discovered that humanity can uphold an ideal of justice that transcends generations, or sink to the depths of evil. I learned about our individual and collective responsibilities to stand up against injustice, to support each other’s struggles as human beings. I realized that we all share the responsibility to carry on the legacies of all that existed before. In honour of those who suffered during the Holocaust, and those who continue to suffer today, I accept the torch of history, passed on from my ancestors, burning with resilience and fuelled by pain. With this torch, we will create a better tomorrow.