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Editor’s Note: Ellen J. Kennedy, professor and executive director World Without Genocide, wrote this guest blog post about how today’s Holocaust Remembrance Day should be marked by more than just looking back.
I have a picture of five Holocaust survivors that I cherish. Each one of them has a different story.
Lucy Smith survived in hiding in Poland. Sabina Zimering lived in the open with false papers, given to her by a Catholic friend who could have been killed for saving Sabina. Margot De Wilde survived horrific medical experiments in Auschwitz. Murray Brandys lived through several concentration camps and the death march. And Walter Schwartz fled from Europe to America and joined the Ritchie Boys, a unit that performed vital intelligence-gathering in Europe.
These five people, all in their 80s, are standing in the picture with Mark Hanis, age 30. Mark is the grandson of four Holocaust survivors and the founder of the Genocide Intervention Network.
Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day (in Hebrew Yom Ha’Shoah), commemorated this week on Thursday, April 19, we remember those who perished and recognize those who survived.
This year I ask that we do more. I ask that we think about those who were ‘upstanders,’ people who did not stand by while their innocent neighbors and friends were taken away to concentration camps and death.
We can all be upstanders, people like Mark Hanis. Mark vowed that genocide should not keep happening in his lifetime, more than half a century after the promise of ‘never again.’
When most of us think about the Holocaust, we’re pretty sure we’d have helped save Jews. We would have brought food to Anne Frank and her family. We would have helped to hide Lucy Smith, or given false papers to Sabina Zimering, or helped Margot and Murray to survive in Auschwitz.
Or would we?
One of the worst crimes is to be a bystander, the person who knows something terrible is happening and does nothing. It’s hard to know what to do or to have the courage to act. And how do we really know that we’d put ourselves in mortal danger to help someone else, especially to help a stranger?
I believe that we can all become upstanders but we have to practice. We have to do something every single day, a little act, so that when the big moments appear in front of us, they’re no longer big moments at all. We won’t even have to think about what the right action is; it will be automatic for us.
Mark Hanis didn’t have to think about starting an organization to prevent genocide. He had already been an upstander his whole life, from being an Eagle Scout as a boy to an emergency medical technician in college. The little steps grow into giant ones before we even realize that our stride has changed.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Each one of us has our own moral arc. We can help create justice in our own neighborhoods and communities. Before long, that moral arc will encompass the world.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.