The phones have been ringing at the Holocaust Center for Humanity in downtown Seattle. A director there makes the case for using the vile neo-Nazi rally recently in Virginia to remember our common humanity.
The phones have been especially busy at the Holocaust Center for Humanity in downtown Seattle since the violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the debates that followed.
The callers have mostly been teachers looking for some way to help their students understand what they’re hearing and reading about.
Dee Simon, Baral Family executive director of the center, says the organization tries to stay out of politics. But she felt the need to make a statement to the community.
She wrote that millions of children and their parents were having to deal with the ugliness of racism and anti-Semitism for the first time. She called it a cold slap in the face that “came because of the actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups that terrorized Charlottesville, and it came because of a president who would not stand up to them.”
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And Simon wrote, “We must take action. When Nazis march in the streets it’s not business as usual.”
Since its founding in 1989 the center has used the lessons of the Holocaust to inspire people, especially young people, to actively confront bigotry and to promote the human dignity of all people.
The center works with 60,000 students throughout the Northwest, and with adults, too. Every Seattle police officer is now required to take a four-hour training course at the center. More people and organizations are recognizing a need for what the organization offers. Simon said, “We have grown each year — by leaps and bounds, really.”
When I visited the center last week, Simon told me her mother is a Holocaust survivor who was held in a concentration camp as a teenager. But Simon told me that she felt the reality of anti-Semitism in her gut when she was holding her baby 22 years ago. “I was holding her and there was an anti-Semitic experience that happened and all of a sudden it hit me that someone could hate her because she was mine,” she said.
She realized how abhorrent that was for not just a Jewish child, but any child. So she decided to do something. She looked for an organization to work with and because she believes education is the place to start, she began volunteering with the center. That was 20 years ago. She got more involved and left her career as an accountant to work at the center.
The center lends teachers educational material and has about 40 speakers who visit classrooms and talk about the experiences of their families. Most speak about the Holocaust, but the list includes people who talk about the Japanese-American internment, Bosnia and other conflicts. The center also offers teacher training.
Almost two years ago, the center opened a museum because it had so many survivor stories to tell. And the center has increased its work with other groups. This year, the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 that authorized the Japanese-American internment, the center put on three programs with the local Japanese-American community.
The center staff has met with people who survived genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda and who wanted to know how they could keep their stories alive. Simon said collecting the stories of survivors is essential. Numbers and dates aren’t enough to make a lasting impact.
She said the Holocaust stays in the public mind partly because every year media put out something about it — a movie or a book, for instance. Simon said in popular culture the Holocaust has been the iconic symbol of evil, which is why, she said, so many people were shocked to see Nazis recently marching in the streets in this country.
Those movements have always been around. She mentioned that the building the center occupies once hosted a huge gathering of the KKK. There’s a photograph taken in 1923 showing them in full regalia.
And today they are emboldened again. “What we’ve witnessed is a heightened anxiety,” she said. But Simon said hate isn’t partisan. She said that anxiety makes it easier for people on either end of the political spectrum to dehumanize one another.
The lessons of the Holocaust help people see what the slide toward dehumanizing a group looks like and what it is possible to do to someone we see as “other.”
Simon said, “For some reason, the Holocaust is far enough away that it is safe to talk about” in classrooms. It isn’t threatening, and its lessons can be applied to current issues.
I sat in on part of the training for a group of police officers. They were being taught how police in Nazi Germany went from public servants to enforcers of the Nazi program. If you know how that slippery slope works, you can avoid sliding down it. The officers are encouraged to think about the values that led them to put on a uniform and to apply those values to their interactions with everyone.
“Most people have a good heart and want to do the right thing,” Simon said. The center tries to help people understand what the right thing is so they don’t slip into the wrong thing, but will fight for what is right.
That letter she wrote ended with this: “We have an opportunity together to shape the next generation, a generation guided by knowledge and compassion, not bigotry and hatred.”
We should all act toward that goal.