Holocaust Center: Applying the lessons of genocide

The shoe of a victim of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of 13 objects from the death camp on display at the Holocaust Center for Humanity on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
The shoe of a victim of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of 13 objects from the death camp on display at the Holocaust Center for Humanity on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Courtesy

Holocaust survivors are fast disappearing. It’s crucial that their memories live on.

The Pacific Northwest, like other regions of America, wound up as a refuge for survivors, some of whom escaped the Nazis by way of China. As part of the Seattle-based Holocaust Center for Humanity, they have been visiting the region’s schools since 1989, sharing their firsthand experiences with students for whom World War II may seem like ancient history.

On Sunday, the center opened a small museum in downtown Seattle. Designed to host and educate middle school and high school classes, it is open to groups by appointment and to the public on Wednesdays and the first and third Sundays of the month. The point isn’t to dwell on the past; the Holocaust Center for Humanity emphasizes applying the lessons of genocide to modern forms of oppression, including such ordinary attacks on dignity as social ridicule and bullying.

One of the museum’s founders, Henry Friedman, exemplifies what the center does. When Friedman visits classrooms, he tells a harrowing story of his own survival:

Friedman lived with his Jewish family in Poland and was a young adolescent when the Nazis invaded. The systematic persecution started with public humiliations and stigma. Jews, for example, were required to wear armbands bearing the Star of David. When Friedman’s mother was caught without her armband, she was beaten so savagely that she couldn’t lift her arms for weeks.

When the Gestapo moved in 1942 to round up the Jews in Friedman’s community, a Ukrainian woman — Julia Symchuck — warned the family and helped hide them in a barn. Friedman, his mother, brother and a female teacher wound up spending 18 months confined in a hiding place the size of a queen-size bed. They were ultimately freed when the Soviet army drove the Nazis out.

Symchuck and her parents embodied the kind of moral heroism that saved many Jews — and continues to protect people targeted for their differences or simply their vulnerability.

The Symchucks would have faced execution themselves had they been exposed as harboring Jews. Anti-Semitism ran strong in parts of Poland and Ukraine long before the rise of Hitler, and the Symchucks could have been betrayed by their own people.

It took extraordinary courage to do what they did. One goal of the Holocaust Center for Humanity is to teach youth how to be “upstanders, not bystanders” when acquaintances are singled out for abuse.

Unfortunately, the Holocaust wasn’t the first or last time an entire ethnic or religious group has been targeted for death or ejection from their homelands.

The worst instances include deliberate destructions of American Indian tribes, the extermination of Armenians during World War I and the mass slaughter of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda in 1994.

Communist dictatorships accounted for millions of deaths in the 20th century. Today, the Islamic State is murdering Christians, Shiite Muslims and such small sects as the Yazidis and Mandeans. They are targeted for who they are, not what they’ve done.

The impulse to stigmatize, bully, ostracize and trap those who are weak or different comes from some very dark place in the human soul. The impulse to defend them comes from a very bright place. Every generation needs to learn the difference, and it ought to be taught in class. For South Sound schools, a visit to the Holocaust Center for Humanity — or from one of its speakers — could be an excellent place to start.