By Robert Poczik
Last year, I visited the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a searing and sobering experience. I was particularly moved by the exhibit, “Daniel’s Story,” which presented the Holocaust through the experience of a Jewish child. It showed life in a ghetto, and the horrors of extermination camps in which more than one million children were killed.
On a wall in the museum there is a quote from the Bible that says, in part: “Only guard your soul, lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” Like countless others before me, I vowed to always remember the evils committed in the Holocaust.
Another exhibit showed the mass genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s that resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodians. Yet another exhibit drew attention to the current war in Syria, which has resulted in the death of an estimated 400,000 Syrians, and the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
As I reflected on my experience at the museum, I realized that it is not enough to remember history. We must strive to understand the present through the lens of history, so as not to repeat errors of the past. Author William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
I am trying to be more aware of current situations in the world and in our country that have uncomfortable echoes of the past. When a group is stereotyped and stigmatized based on race, ethnicity or religion, and is viewed with fear as “the other,” we may be on a slippery slope toward discrimination and persecution. We need to be alert when such groups are identified, tracked, registered, rounded up, banned or incarcerated. The Rohingya, fleeing from their homes in Myanmar, are the most recent example of such persecution.
From this perspective, there are groups I worry about in our own country: young black men who may seem threatening to some, but who themselves are threatened; grown children brought to this country illegally from Mexico by their parents, who have now put down roots here and are eager to stay and contribute; Muslims, who are seen by some as a danger because of the sins of a very few Muslim terrorists; and refugees, fleeing for safety from war zones and persecution, who can be seen as a burden and a threat to our country rather than a potential asset. Theologian Ronald Rolheiser writes: “Sadly, we often demonize each other, seeing danger where there is only difference.”
I believe that we need to be alert to negative stereotyping, discrimination and persecution whenever it occurs, and act to prevent it. This means viewing those who are different from us with fraternity, rather than fear, and believing that all lives matter.
Robert Poczik is a retired educator who reads and travels widely and makes presentations on a variety of topics to groups across Western New York.