Two months after students staged a walkout that blocked a vote to mark Holocaust Education Week, Ryerson University was the scene of an event on what can be learned from the Shoah.
The lesson: that universities and their educated graduates played a pivotal role in the Holocaust and that institutes of higher learning can help prevent future acts of racism and genocide.
The Jan. 27 event, titled “What can be learned from the Holocaust?” took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, proclaimed by the United Nations in 2005 to coincide with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
The packed commemoration took place on the heels of a Nov. 29 motion by the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) to mark Holocaust Education Week that was met with a walkout by some students. The semi-annual general meeting lost quorum and the motion was tabled. Jewish groups blamed anti-Semitism.
The motion was approved unanimously Dec. 19 by the RSU board of directors.
The Jan. 27 event, which took place without controversy, described the horrors of the Holocaust and its lessons for today.
Universities played “a crucial role in the years leading to and during the Holocaust,” said Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi. “Before the Holocaust, Germany was a highly advanced country with highly educated citizens. German universities were considered among the best in the world.”
Yet these same universities provided fertile ground for racism to take root by barring Jewish faculty and students, he said. Universities “did not oppose the extreme views of the Nazis,” he said. “In fact, there was widespread support and acceptance. By making anti-Semitism acceptable, universities set the stage for the Holocaust.”
University leaders today “must heed the lessons of history. We must respect inclusivity and ensure that freedom from harassment and discrimination are core values.”
The Holocaust provides “a terrifying but profoundly instructive example of how political extremism can emerge and take hold in a society that’s initially not so different from our own,” said Tomaz Jardim, an assistant professor of history at Ryerson.
Its memory “exists as a resounding rebuke to passivity and civic disengagement. It pleads with us not to be merely bystanders.”
The Holocaust began, he added, “with forces that unfortunately have not vanished from the world, not even from our society: anxiety and fears of the other; racism and marginalization of minority groups; [and] backlashes against moderate, tolerant, multicultural societies.”
But it also included apathy: most Germans “simply got used” to anti-Jewish measures. When there was violence, “they simply learned to look the other way. They became desensitized. They became bystanders.”
Jardim also noted the role of the educated elite. The Wannsee Conference of 1942, where top Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry, “was attended by lawyers, PhDs, ministers of government, chiefs of police – highly educated people.”
The “good news,” he said, is that today, “we can act, even if our efforts are humble.” That could include assisting current refugees fleeing violence or small acts of kindness.
“Most important, we must simply refuse to be indifferent,” Jardim said.
Local activist and speaker Judy Weissenberg Cohen, a Hungarian-born survivor of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, a slave labour camp and a death march, used photographs to take the audience through her harrowing experience during the Shoah, in which most of her family perished.
The Holocaust was the result of “rationally determined government policies, normally acted upon by ordinary people, many of them well-educated individuals,” she said. Recognizing signs similar to those preceding the Holocaust “could be very instructive for prevention. That ought to be a priority for scholars and civil societies, but most importantly, for the decision makers holding political power.”
Her ultimate message was “never be indifferent to manifestations of hate. Reject the words of leaders with easy solutions to difficult problems by demonizing certain segments of the population.”
After the results of the recent U.S. election, “maybe even democracy and the democratic process [are] in danger, perhaps even internationally. We are facing a fluid, very uncertain political future. Is this an indication that learning from history doesn’t necessarily mean a change? But then we learn nothing.”
Cohen urged students to use social media to combat online hate.
“You have a perfect opportunity to use social media to reject negative demonizing messages and replace them with healthier more wholesome thoughts.”