Remembering History So We Never Repeat It

Posted by knetzler on May 05, 2016

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” –Elie Wiesel, author and Holocaust survivor

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, one of many days that asks us to pause and reflect on the Holocaust of Europe and North Africa.[1] From 1939-1944, the National Socialist Party of Germany (Nazi) systematically exterminated Jews, Roma, mentally and physically disabled persons, homosexuals, and political enemies, totaling 11 million men, women and children.

Part of my undergraduate study was on the Holocaust and genocide, so Miss Peggy has asked me to reflect on today and what it means for us here at BRIDGES. The obvious question is this: how could it happen? Why does it continue to happen? And why do we seem to accept genocide as an inevitable part of our broken world? Why, knowing what we know, don’t we put more time and effort into preventative justice—creating an environment where anger, frustration, mistrust or resentment can be poured out on the table and dealt with, before it festers into something much worse?

I remember a discussion about relief agencies in class. We were exploring how such agencies often use personal tales and portraits rather than statistics in order to attract attention to a political or social problem. If you subscribe to websites such as Genocide Watch or Amnesty International, you’ll know what I mean. People tend to relate more easily to individual stories than to numbers, my professor argued, because seeing a face and a name reminds us that “this is someone’s experience.”

I think BRIDGES understands this very well. According to Genocide Watch, the first stage of genocide is classification, which means dividing people into an “us” group from a “them” group. This is what we’re dealing with as a nation, as a culture, and as an organization. We’re working to combat classification.

Growing up in Memphis, I never really felt safe, because I was taught that Memphis wasn’t a safe place. Even though my classes touted the values of diversity, I see now that my fear was a form of complicity; complicity in classification, segregation, prejudice and injustice. Ignorance guides our behavior if we accept fear as an inevitable part of our city and culture.

However, knowledge, understanding, and a healthy curiosity are all antidotes to fear. BRIDGES does a tremendous job at fostering these qualities in all of our programs. That’s why I love our organization, everything it stands for, and everything it strives to be. Knowledge is empowerment, and empowerment starts with the individual. BRIDGES knows that.

Yet beyond personal empowerment, creating communities that learn to accept and embrace the differences among us combats our tendencies to classify others, to dehumanize others, and to separate ourselves from others. Difference doesn’t need to be a hindrance. It can be, and I believe it is, our greatest asset.

Still, how can we stand by and watch people destroy each other, both at home and abroad? It’s easy to think that things aren’t getting any better, and maybe that’s true. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily stresses of work and focus on the confusing changes all around us.

But I remember a comment that was brought up in our BRIDGES staff discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me last week, when someone asked Coates what he suggested for repairing our nation and our world. Loosely paraphrasing, he said, “I am a historian. That’s not my role.” “And hasn’t he done enough?” someone in the group responded.

I suppose, to me, Holocaust Remembrance Day exists so that others can give the gift of knowledge to those who will take it in their hands and use it to fight for a better future, like Coates has done with his book and like all of us are doing today. We have the tools here at the BRIDGES Center to do just that. We have our books, curriculum, ropes, harnesses, laptops and so much more. But most of all, we all have our own experiences that fuel the individual work we do and contribute to a collective experience that seeks to transform all participants. And this is something that our city and our world really needs.

Remembering the shadowed parts of our culture’s past (both locally and globally) is an essential part of understanding the present. Knowledge shouldn’t cripple us—it should propel us to action. Personally, I struggle to remember this on a daily basis, which is why I’m grateful for so many opportunities for self-reflection. I’m grateful to be part of this organization and to learn from each of you every day.

I hope we can all pause for a moment today to reflect not only on the experience of those directly affected by the Holocaust, but also on our own experiences and how that fits into the greater cause. There’s no time like the present.

Melanie Stanek, BRIDGES Recruitment Specialist

[1] The United States takes its date for Holocaust Remembrance from the State of Israel’s day of remembrance, which changes every year based on the Hebrew Calendar. The United Nations’ official day of Remembrance is January 27.