“…this human catastrophe involved…thousands of bystanders whose complacency allowed those in power to continuously expand their cruelty.”
Last October, 24 civic and campus leaders from Keene huddled in the Baltimore airport, on their way home from visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
As if touring the museum hadn't been affective enough, group exercises that revealed how the genocide gained momentum in Germany brought them face-to-face with eerily familiar attitudes and behaviors they see every day.
The intensity of the day's workshops drew them into intimate, reflective conversations at the gate, suddenly drowned out by the airport's loudspeakers.
The announcer introduced a group of World War II veterans who were making their way through the airport. They had been visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington and were now heading home.
Spontaneously, everyone in the airport stood to cheer and applaud. New Hampshire State Senator Molly Kelly '83, a member of the Keene contingent, shook each vet's hand, thanking them for their service.
“To see these old veterans, most of whom were in wheelchairs, who had been so young and vital but now were in need of help and respect, brought home the very messages we had learned at the museum.”
"It was a profound moment," noted Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach for the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which had organized the trip.
"Here are these men who, as young men and teenagers, had witnessed the very things we had seen secondhand in the museum. Their presence brought affirmation, hope, and respect for what these guys had done to stop the evil that was Nazism. So that moment, right before we boarded the plane, was healing and warm, and brought tears to our eyes – and gave us hope. To see these old veterans, most of whom were in wheelchairs, who had been so young and vital but now were in need of help and respect, brought home the very messages we had learned at the museum."
That serendipitous event was a powerful conclusion to the Cohen Center's outreach effort, the first Civic Leadership Initiative (CLI) program, designed to use the lessons of the Holocaust to enhance its participants' social and civic awareness – all to help them be more effective at what they do.
“You often come out of this kind of encounter seeing yourself as more connected to the world than you've ever thought possible. You look at the implications of your thinking in new ways.”
As Center Director Dr. Hank Knight explains, the center's focus helps people "realize there are significant consequences to how they see other people, how they see themselves in relationship to other people. You often come out of this kind of encounter seeing yourself as more connected to the world than you've ever thought possible. You look at the implications of your thinking in new ways. And there's hardly a better and more unsettling example of the ramifications of one group seeing individuals who are different from themselves as 'others' than at the Holocaust Memorial Museum."
The Washington trip is one of many ways the Cohen Center reaches out to the larger community. Others include the Kristallnacht Remembrance it holds each year in the Colonial Theater, its annual Hildebrandt and Herman Awards night, its commemoration of Yom HaShoah, and its educational outreach to area schools.
But Hank Knight and Tom White saw the need to carry the center's message in a more powerful way to those leaders who are influential in the community, those people who might apply the lessons in ways that could affect many others.
“The lesson is not simply one of 'Germans and Jews'; the lesson is about what modern, educated human beings are capable of doing.”
"Looking at the purposeful determination by a 20th-century European state to mass-murder everyone of a certain ethnicity," explained Prof. Paul Vincent, "will hit you every time you visit the museum. That's the point of taking people down there. The lesson is not simply one of 'Germans and Jews'; the lesson is about what modern, educated human beings are capable of doing. It doesn't matter how educated they are; nearly every one of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special task forces that were on the Eastern Front for the purpose of mass-murdering Jews, had a doctorate."
Because the social transformation that led up to the Holocaust took years to develop and swept up members of every profession and occupation in the society, the CLI participants could see how their own professions and analogous institutions played a role, if not actually participating in the oppression, then in the shared guilt of standing by and doing little to stop a movement bent on justifying extermination.
"All of our participants, these professionals and individuals, began to see connections to their fields in ways they hadn't understood before," Tom White explained. "Suddenly, they see the implications for the whole society, and they're able to deal with it more honestly."
“I hope I will have more awareness and courage to confront social forces that seek to turn one group against another, or bully others, or pressure a targeted group with unjust political power”
Facing complicity isn't easy. "Often, people turn away from the really difficult stuff that implicates them when it has to do with their world, their way of seeing things," Hank Knight pointed out. "But they can be more able and willing to open those doors if they're respectful of what that resistance is about."
The Keene contingent began to see that what happened in Nazi Germany could happen again, even in our sophisticated society. The currents and human tendencies that were at play then are still very present in today's world.
Antioch University President David Caruso explained that the group exercises led by the museum's staff "really delved into the ways that German society cooperated with the Nazis that allowed such a complete takeover – the collaboration of the judicial system, the police, the fire departments, the education system, people who just a few years earlier were typical, average folks in the community. It really changed my understanding. You can't just blame the Nazi leadership and the military machine; it was much more pervasive than that and the machine wouldn't have been effective without the cooperation of most people in the society."
“The trip made me more patient and reflective and also reminded me of the importance of not always accepting what is handed down to you but instead having the courage to challenge the wrongs you see around you.”
As Tom White asks, "Have we really learned the lesson of the Holocaust? You've got to take the experience from history and transform it into what's going on today, because the human experience hasn't changed – just the context of that interaction."
Some of the participants stayed an extra day and visited the U.S. Congress. After what they'd seen at the Holocaust Museum, they were deeply disturbed by the rabid partisanship of a legislative body that consistently vilifies "the other."
And yet, those who attended the CLI came back hopeful. Tom White said, "They were asking themselves 'How do I take that experience in the museum and not only change how we talk to each other here in Keene, but also ask how we can project that through the state, through the region, through the nation to change some of the trends we're seeing?' There was a real hope that we can have an impact, with other like-minded groups and institutions, to really change the trend of some of our discussions in America these days."
Dr. Rudy Fedrizzi, a community health leader, admitted, "I had mistakenly thought the Holocaust involved a relatively small number of Nazi monsters and mostly was a war-related tragedy. But the time at the museum made me realize this human catastrophe involved thousands of non-Nazi perpetrators and collaborators whose direct actions contributed to deaths and the thousands of bystanders whose complacency allowed those in power to continuously expand their cruelty."
Will what he learned really affect his personal life, or his life in the community?
"I hope I will have more awareness and courage to confront social forces that seek to turn one group against another, or bully others, or pressure a targeted group with unjust political power," Dr. Fedrizzi said. "In my community health work, I now find myself more mindful about the concept of equity and the idea that we are all better together, when everyone shares meaningfully and fully in health improvement opportunities. As a parent I find myself trying harder to express empathy, model acceptance of different views, stress kindness and gratitude, and remind my kids that, regardless of the other person, we are almost always more alike than different."
The deteriorating balance of power in the German government struck New Hampshire State Senator Molly Kelly. She took note of how the judicial branch steadily lost authority, allowing members of the other branches to run roughshod over the rights of minority groups. "My job as a state senator is to make sure that we keep those branches balanced," she said. "When I saw how the judiciary fell, I went 'ah ha!' We need to continue to work to maintain that important balance."
Mark Hayward Jr., principal at Westmoreland School, said, "The trip made me more patient and reflective and also reminded me of the importance of not always accepting what is handed down to you but instead having the courage to challenge the wrongs you see around you. It has made me more assertive when it comes to calling someone on something that I see as harmful or destructive."
Participants in the CLI trip were given an opportunity to explore more deeply the museum's messages.
"In this computer age, lots of people have knowledge, but very few people have wisdom," Tom White noted. "A trip like this allows you to discover wisdom, rather than simply acquire knowledge."
"And it's a wisdom that starts with knowing yourself," Hank Knight added, "in relationship with others, in relationship with the world, even in difficult and unsettling ways."