By Megan Ferenczy
When we ask people why we study the Holocaust, the first answer, 100 percent of the time, is, “So we learn from it and not repeat what happened.”
We read about the Holocaust, watch films about the Holocaust and often times we are left with more questions than answers, asking ourselves why something like the Holocaust happens.
We question why people did not do more to help the Jews and other victims of the Nazis. The Holocaust did not begin with mass murder, it began with words, and with slow, systematic and legal discrimination.
Antisemitism existed before Nazism and it was through fear mongering, open discrimination, rhetoric and normalization of racial and religious hatred and violence that it escalated to murder.
With the ending of the Holocaust in 1945 and the liberation of the death camps, the world became a witness to the horrors inflicted by humans to humans. There were trials to hold a small number of perpetrators accountable for their crimes, achieving some form of legal justice. But that didn’t make antisemitism or hatred disappear; and the decades since the Holocaust we can still be seen repeating history.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day which commemorates the liberation of the Nazi camp and killing center Auschwitz. And in 2022, 77 years later as we remember this day, we are currently living in a world where antisemitism, racism and hate crimes are on the rise.
That increase in hate can leave us feeling hopeless, asking ourselves how we got to this point and what we can do to help make a difference. As the director of education of the Virginia Holocaust Museum I find myself feeling that way and asking those same questions sometimes. It is difficult not to.
When I am feeling overwhelmed, it helps to take a step back and remember why I do what I do. I think about the thousands of visitors that walk through our doors every single year (even during a pandemic), spending hours in our exhibits, expanding their knowledge and narrative of what the Holocaust was and how it affected real people like them. And I think about how when they hear the experiences of survivors, they leave the museum and share the stories with others. Those stories include people like the Ipson family — Israel, Edna and Jay — and how they survived the Holocaust by hiding in a potato cellar. Or Alexander Lebenstein and the way he felt as he watched neighbors and people he went to school with turn against him because they were Jewish. I think about my museum colleagues, guest speakers, historians and Holocaust educators that I’ve worked with who have dedicated their lives to making a difference in the world and an impact on the students.
The hundreds of public, private and home school teachers that attend our workshops and our summer teacher education institute, taking their personal time to learn about this history because they know it matters. I think about the survivor speakers that share their experiences to thousands of students every year in person and now virtually, and the questions and the genuine thanks that are given. It is the response of the community to the work of the museum that gives us hope that people want change and want to make a difference in this world.
And with that hope we are determined at the Virginia Holocaust Museum to continue to teach facts, accurate history, the dark and uncomfortable, shining a light on man’s inhumanity to man. We will continue to share the stories of the victims of the Holocaust and we continue work to amplify the voices of people that continue to be discriminated against and marginalized, victims of unchecked hatred. We work to build bridges and connections between people.
The museum strongly believes that we can all work towards mutual respect and understanding. We ask that the next time you read, see or hear of an injustice that you not only feel sadness and anger in the moment but that you take those emotions and become an agent of positive change. Make a conscious decision to step out of your own reality. Educate yourself and have conversations with people that are different than you. Visit the Virginia Holocaust Museum (we are free and open every day of the week) learn about the experiences of survivors and share those stories with others.
Attend a museum lecture, film screening or a panel discussion to learn more about history and contemporary connections. More knowledge leads to an enhanced understanding. Become an ally, speak out against injustice and discrimination and educate others on identifying bias. Be engaged civically, make sure you are voting, call or write your lawmakers, be a part of the legislative process. Work or volunteer your time with an organization that is a community advocate. If you are a teacher we encourage you to attend one of our many professional development workshops throughout the year, including our summer class, The Alexander Lebenstein Teacher Education Institute, where you learn about the history of the Holocaust and the best resources and practices for teaching this history. We invite you to join us in our work to help educate and inspire change.
The Holocaust shows us that words, choices and actions matter. What we choose to do or not do affects others. Hate makes us feel powerless but together through positive action and interaction we can work together to create change. It is our hope that you then put “memory into action,” using what you have learned to make a difference in our world and that one day we can truthfully utter the words, “Never again.”
Megan Ferenczy is the director of education at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.