Last Thursday, April 19, marked Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Most people probably didn’t notice. Yet the day has dramatic implications for all of us, Jewish or not, every day of the year.
In addition to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, the dead also included many others: church members; clergy; trade unionists; gypsies; gays; socialists; and more.
Many of us will remember the famous quotation by the Rev. Martin Niemoller. The Nazis sent him to Sachsenhausen and Dachau because they considered him lacking in enthusiasm for the Nazi party. He wrote:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The Nazis targeted those whom they perceived as different — not dangerous, not frightening — just different. They preyed on those differences to arouse German pride. (While nationalistic and economic issues played the major part in the rise of the Nazis, their propaganda attack focused on the differences.)
In contrast, America’s strength comes from our differences. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum, means “Out of many, one.”
Holocaust Remembrance Day should remind us to embrace our differences. By tolerating these differences we can eliminate prejudice and bigotry and bias. This must become the work of all of us.
The Declaration of Independence promises us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And that promise should apply to all in equal measure — each one supporting the rights of others.
Consider bullying in schools, in the workplace, on the Internet. Who gets bullied? Someone perceived as different, and as weak. Yet as an American, that person has something to offer. Just give the person a chance. We all must stand up against bullying. The bullies must know that they will have to deal with all of us, not just the bullied individual.
Holocaust Remembrance Day should make us focus on the dangers of prejudice, bigotry and bias. Think of a group of little kids: white, black, Asian, Hispanic. Have you seen them play together? They don’t notice differences. They play with other little people, nothing more.
Bigotry and prejudice are not genetic. They are learned behaviors, passed down in families and in society from generation to generation. Kids learn from the comments and actions of adults, which influence their behaviors and beliefs.
Recognizing and embracing differences must become part of our national psyche. You don’t have to agree with someone different, you just have to respect that individual. Consider today’s political environment. Our politicians have become so focused on the differences that they have created a vast divide. Right, left, red, blue. They have forgotten the best interests of Americans.
“We the people” suffer from these artificial divisions.
Tolerating, respecting and embracing differences will serve to benefit our country. We can never allow one minority group to feel the brunt of a misguided populace. We all must stand up for the rights of others.
Our country faces severe economic challenges. If all of us work together, not as African-Americans or Irish-Americans or Catholics or Christians or Jews, but as Americans, we can solve the complex problems that face us as a nation.
Much work remains for us to do. To forge a strong nation of brothers, we must eliminate the perpetuation of lies, mistruths, prejudices and bigotry.
We truly must become “…one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Let’s do what we can, everyday, to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust. Standing up for our fellow citizens, looking for the good in them, and working together as Americans seem the most appropriate ways to mark our memories of the Holocaust.
Our Founding Fathers left Europe to seek economic, religious and personal freedom. Holocaust Remembrance Day should remind us of the wonderful freedoms we enjoy, freedoms we have earned. And it should further remind us how we must all stand together.
Let us all remember those critical words, “never again.”
And, may God bless America.
Jeffrey Weisman practices fine arts photography and serves on the board of directors of Art Center Sarasota.