Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
1st place: Chris Wolfe
School: East Chapel Hill High School
The Holocaust was arguably the most infamous series of human rights abuses in modern history. Between the rise to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in 1933 and Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Allied armies in May 1945, over nine million people, including Gypsies, Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war, homosexuals, the disabled, and over six million Jews were killed in a system of concentration camps, mass murder, and persecution by the Nazis. But what is the relevance of these events today? Many genocides and injustices have occurred since the Holocaust, and many continue now. Remembering these injustices honors those who died in these events and helps us to prevent future atrocities. Remembering gives us the ability and, therefore, the responsibility as good world citizens to take action.
Many who survived these events feel that it is their duty to tell their stories. This is their way of honoring the dead. For example, in Elie Wiesel’s book Night, the character Moche the Beadle returns to Sighet after narrowly escaping a mass execution of Jews in a forest. When he warns the Jews of Sighet, they do not believe his story. He tells Elie that he feels his sole reason for living was to tell his story as a warning. Later in the book, Elie feels the same way himself. In Elie’s words: “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. And anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” Wiesel states that he feels obligated to remember and to tell their story. This story is addressed to the world, and it is our duty to listen. This story is not only the story of the Holocaust, but also the story of genocide and persecution worldwide throughout history.
Remembering past genocide gives the world the ability to prevent future injustice and the knowledge that permits us to act in the world today. If we do not understand past wrongs, we allow history to repeat itself. The same crimes could be committed again. We learn about the sins of the past so we see the potential consequences of our actions and avoid repeating similar violations of human rights in the future. Elie Wiesel also offers insight into this topic with the words: “A destruction, an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent.” Hopefully we will learn the lesson that people are capable of evil beyond what we can imagine. Through being informed, we are armed with the knowledge needed to act. We are unable to stop ongoing abuses if we know nothing of them. Watching a news report about the violence in Darfur then gives us the knowledge necessary to do something about it, whether by writing to Congress, sending money through a humanitarian organization, or participating in a protest. If we are not informed, we can do nothing. Being informed is also a way of remembering.
Having the knowledge that enables us to act against genocide in the world gives us the responsibility to act. After seeing the violence and persecution around us, it is hard not to act in good conscience. Before we learn about a problem in the world, we are blissfully ignorant of it and cannot be expected to help alleviate the problem. In today’s interconnected world, we are, whether we want to be or not, citizens of the world. To be a good world citizen, we must know that events outside of our own country affect us, and we must participate in the world, which means looking outside of our own immediate surroundings and being connected. We can be connected by learning about people, cultures, and events of the world, both present and past. Once we are informed of the problem we can see that the people in current situations of genocide and persecution are crying out for aid and that we are the ones in a position to provide it. We then have the moral obligation to do so. If we do not offer assistance, our inaction implies that we do not care.
Apathy is a dangerous and harmful attitude. For example, the Voyage of the Damned was a ship full of Jewish refugees fleeing the fighting in Europe during World War II. The ship was subsequently turned away by several countries including the United States. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where over seven hundred of the nine hundred passengers died in the concentration camp system. The ship was turned away because the immigration quotas from Europe were full for that year. We did not believe the stories of genocide trickling out of Europe, and we cared more about immigration quotas than about the horrors of the war and its toll on humanity. Also, consider the example of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. The world averted its eyes as over one million Rwandans died in a brutal ethnic conflict. Only a small United Nations peacekeeping force was in Rwanda at the time, and they had orders not to shoot. Instead, they were forced to watch a nation tear itself apart for a hundred days. We were not actively helping the killers, but we were not stopping them, either. In our idleness we allowed suffering that we could have prevented. Here Elie Wiesel speaks against the damage caused by apathy and indifference: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressors, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Wiesel expresses that indifference is damaging to the same extent as hatred.
We have the duty to remember, which informs us and enables to act. Therefore our capacity to act for the benefit of others makes us responsible, as world citizens, to act. Inaction implies apathy, which is dangerous. Perhaps the slaughter of six million Jews in Europe will never occur again, but to restrict our knowledge and understanding of genocide and human rights violations to the Holocaust would be to ignore the stories of millions more. The Holocaust is a powerful example of the global problem of genocide and persecution, and the memory of its horror must inspire younger generations to fight against such heinous crimes today and in the future.