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We Have Not Yet Learned The Lessons Of The Holocaust

I am a formerly incarcerated Jewish lesbian and the daughter of two survivors of the Holocaust.

In past years on Yom HaShoah, I watched my parents light candles and testify about their experience. Every time they spoke they relived the horrors they endured. For some seventy years, they, all survivors and the world, said “never again” and “never forget.”

My mother is 90 years-old and is no longer able to speak publicly about her life in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz. She and my father, while he was alive, were determined to hold onto their memories and use them as a means to help prevent future atrocities.

The world did not change. As my parents and others fought to bring attention to the killings in Darfur and the Congo, the world remained largely silent. The protests did not stop the killings. The barbarism continues today in many parts of the world. And we have genocide happening all over the world as I write this piece today.

My mother firmly believed hate to be the problem. She would remind me and the audiences she spoke to of the lyrics to a song from the musical South Pacific: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.”

The descriptions of concentration camp life rang in my ears when I was incarcerated and experienced, first-hand, the sadistic mistreatment of incarcerated people and the intentional deprivations of prison life. American prisons, jails, lock-ups and juvenile and immigration detention centers are horrific places, especially if you are black, brown or LGBTQ. Just as Hitler’s propaganda minister told Germans that Jews were the reason for their problems, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, tells us each day it is immigrants, Mexicans and Islamists who are undesirable, even worse, a danger to our country. Like Goebbels, Trump believes that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will believe it. Trump is trying to teach us to hate.

Elie Wiesel said it best on the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald when he addressed his comments to then President Obama:

“What can I tell him( my father) that the world has learned? I am not so sure. Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will — will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war — every war is absurd and meaningless — where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the Other rather than respect it.

But the world hasn’t learned. When I was liberated in 1945, April 11, by the American army, somehow many of us were convinced that at least one lesson will have been learned — that never again will there be war; that hatred is not an option; that racism is stupid; and the will to conquer other people’s minds or territories or aspirations, that will is meaningless.

…Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.

Will the world ever learn?

“Never again” and “Never forget” are meaningless phrases if we acknowledge them once a year without ensuring that hate and violence will not be allowed to rule the world. “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late…” It is time to answer Elie Wiesel’s question: “Will the world ever learn?” We could start by closing Rikers Island, by ending the injustices rampant in our criminal justice system and by drowning out the messages of hate with those of love.

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