Language can be alienating. Words with strong associations often force us to take positions of opposition, rather than seek understanding. This has happened recently, when detention centers along the U.S.–Mexico border were termed “concentration camps.” The response was foreseeable: the term has become so strongly associated with Nazi deportations and killing centers that any other use of these words can feel insulting. Used in a contemporary context, the words themselves have the power to cause pain, seeming to diminish the suffering of those who experienced or survived the Holocaust.
In a recent interview, I spoke with acclaimed writer, educator, rabbi, and scholar Ariel Burger about the task of the educator on Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—and every day. A devoted protégé and friend of Elie Wiesel, Burger is the author of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.
KS: In your bio, you note that a major personal transformation that you underwent in your young adulthood has had a defining impact on your work and that this moment was meeting Professor Elie Wiesel. What did that meeting and relationship teach you?
AB: I think there are things we all go through at certain ages and for many of us, during our teenage years, we start asking very important and fundamental questions about who we are, what’s our role in the world, how can we make a difference, and also why does the world not make any sense, morally, ethically. Our deepest intuitions about the world don’t match up with the reality of how people treat one another.
Commemorated with rituals and traditions, Yom HaShoah—or Holocaust Remembrance Day—helps us pause to focus on the lessons of history—painful, brutal history. In most communities, observations will feature presentations from Holocaust survivors or their children, remembrances in the flesh and—through their stories—living reminders of the exclamation, “Never again!”
As we celebrate Earth Week, it might seem obvious that ecological thinking and aims are always aligned with moral behavior and compassion. But that isn’t always the case, and it certainly wasn’t the case in Weimar and Nazi Germany where the field of modern ecology emerged.
Seventy-five years ago this month, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. For nearly four weeks, Jews revolted against the Nazis as they entered the ghetto to deport its remaining inhabitants to concentration camps. Although the Nazi’s military prowess proved too powerful for the prisoners' efforts, it became a symbol of resistance that counteracted the often-touted narrative that Jews went to their deaths without a fight. It is no coincidence that today, Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, coincides with this historic moment.
For 73 years, the Polish Government has bristled at the use of the term, “Polish death camps.” This reticence has prompted a new law, signed yesterday by President Andrzej Duda, that outlaws the phrase and penalizes anyone who suggests the country was complicit in Nazi crimes committed under occupation during World War II. While Duda defends the move as a way to safeguard the country against slander, using law and punishment to manipulate historical narratives raises troubling questions about how we remember the past.
January 27th, the anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, is the day marked by the United Nations to remember the Holocaust. Observed at the UN headquarters and in countries throughout the world, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not the only memorial day. Some countries observe a date that relates directly to their own Holocaust history. Jews throughout the world mark the 27th of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar, a date just after Passover and in proximity to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 to remember these catastrophic events.
In March, 64 lawyers from Holland & Knight were busy poring over thousands of essays. These weren’t from legal briefings or court hearings. They were submissions from over 5,200 students who entered the 2017 Facing History Together Student Essay Contest. The global law firm’s Holocaust Remembrance Project, which is part of its charitable foundation, generously funded the contest but their lawyers also took an extra step by volunteering to review the essays.
During World War II, 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought back against the Nazis as partisans. Hidden deep in the forests, these underground communities were the heart of an organized resistance movement that took up arms against the Nazis. Around 10 percent of these partisans were women.
Although often known for their support roles—performing camp duties, providing medical care, and acting as messengers—some women also fought alongside men. As we close out Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating three Jewish women partisans whose bravery shows us the meaning of what it is to be an upstander.
I came to the teaching profession with big ambitions. Like many readers of this blog, I imagine, I’ve always loved learning, and I enjoy the effervescent and unpredictable company of kids. As a first-generation college graduate, I know firsthand how education can transform an individual’s life. But I also entered the classroom with the conviction that schools have a communal and civic purpose, too—that they are the root and heart of democratic societies.