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posted: 6/20/2014 1:01 AM

Editorial: The Holocaust: Valuable lessons for all time

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  • The Room of Remembrance at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.

    The Room of Remembrance at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.
    Daily Herald File Photo

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

On Sunday, we read the remarkable story of Kurt Wagner, a German-born 83-year-old who was interned during World War II with his Jewish mother; while his brother, Heinz, lived with their Protestant father, a member of the Nazi party.

Both survived the war -- Kurt by being sent to America with other refugee children, and Heinz, by joining Hitler Youth in hopes of hiding his Jewish heritage. That Kurt and Heinz -- separated almost at birth and who did not know each other growing up -- were able to reconnect 30 years after the war is an incredible human story, the kind of story that keeps the Holocaust very relevant to today's world.

It has been almost exactly 70 years since the first concentration camp was discovered by Allied troops, and the greatest act of genocide in modern times (but by no means the last) was shown to the world.

As more survivors pass away, and with them the precious personal connections to this tragedy, there is more reason than ever to teach the Holocaust in our schools. The size and scope of the genocide alone make it vital for each generation to understand what happened, and why.

Every new generation of students is fascinated and appalled by the Holocaust. How could this happen, young people ask over and over again, their own innate sense of fairness and justice struggling to make sense of this historical fact. They are incredulous that a democratic government, Germany, could get so far afield from democratic principles that whole groups of people were targeted for extermination -- 6 million Jews, but also millions of others: intellectuals and the well-educated; homosexuals; Catholics; mentally ill people; Slavs; Romanies; socialists; communists and many other groups.

How could virtually an entire nation turn its back on sanity and either actively support the regime -- or do nothing? The answers to the "why" and "how" are complex. And all too sadly -- Bosnia and Rwanda come immediately to mind -- attempts to wipe out entire ethnic groups still surface in today's world to remind us we still haven't found them.

So, it is important that young people learn enough to defuse a sense of moral superiority, the misguided idea that this could never happen here, that "we" would never permit it.

Instead, they should understand that standing up for the bullied and persecuted is what citizens do to protect the fabric of their society -- even if you don't know the targeted people and don't have much in common with them. Students must learn, too, that even for people born in 21st century American affluence, democracy isn't a given. Democracy needs support, it needs appreciation to thrive.

The Holocaust was no accident. It was not the result of random events that came together in a perfect storm. It was planned and executed, when a fragile democracy collapsed and a society of desperate, angry people chose to believe what they were told, no matter how insane it was.

There is nothing unique about those circumstances. They can happen -- and have -- anywhere, any time. We applaud local schools who work to bring the Holocaust alive for students who are farther and farther removed from the event. We appreciate the willingness of survivors to tell their stories -- over and over again -- to classes of students learning about this for the first time, to newspaper audiences who know the broad outline of history and to anyone who will listen. These are lessons worth learning today, tomorrow and forever, no matter how many years pass.

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