Editorial: Firsthand connections keep lessons of history alive

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 4/17/2018 11:44 AM
  • Streamwood High School students created a temporary museum for genocide awareness and prevention in conjunction with Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.

      Streamwood High School students created a temporary museum for genocide awareness and prevention in conjunction with Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Aaron Elster, of Lincolnshire, died last week at the age of 86. You should know his life story, at least a central part of it. Everyone should. Thankfully, we all still can hear it from Elster himself.

Last year, Elster participated along with 12 other Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in a project that gives students and patrons at the Take A Stand Center in the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center the realistic experience of speaking with a Holocaust survivor. The 13 participants answered hundreds of questions and were filmed from all angles so that they appear as holograms, capable of interacting with people who visit the Skokie museum.

The importance of such an enterprise was reinforced on Holocaust Remembrance Day. A survey released by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a survey showing how much historical memory has been lost in the 73 years since the end of World War II.

According to the researchers nearly two-thirds of millennials -- and 41 percent of all Americans - couldn't say what Auschwitz was. More than half of all Americans of any age thought Hitler rose to power by force, rather than, in fact, through a democratic election. Nearly a third of all Americans, and far more than that among millennials, think the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust was a fraction of the actual figure of 6 million that historians have determined.

"Never again" has been a defiant refrain in popular culture since the end of World War II, and yet from Rwanda to the Balkans to modern-day Myanmar, suspected attempts to exterminate whole populations repeatedly re-emerge. Those who think that experiences like Elster's are resigned to the past clearly need to pay closer attention to his message.

Which is not to say that isn't happening to some extent. With April designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, students across the suburbs are studying the horrifying truths about what now is often called "ethnic cleansing." Students at Streamwood High School last week created a museum of their own remembering victims and honoring individuals who stand up in defense of targeted populations. Barrington's Steen Metz, like Elster a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, told our Burt Constable last week that he has shared his story with more than 55,000 schoolchildren and adults, and he volunteers to speak about 75 times a year.

Yet, it is troubling to reflect that even in spite of such efforts, profound historical events are slipping from our collective memory. That's dangerous not merely in the sense that we may be condemned, as philosopher George Santayana famously said, to relive the history we don't know, but also in the even more immediate sense that those with a merely fleeting understanding of the past are easy prey for people who are only too happy to co-opt events for their own political or social ends.

"Our fear, as survivors, is when we're gone, what happens?," Elster told the Daily Herald when the hologram exhibit opened. "Is it going to be one paragraph in a history book that says 'Jews were killed'?"

Fortunately, his image will be around indefinitely to keep the world apprised of the human cost of the Holocaust. Now, it remains for us to hear his and others' stories and apply them to the reality of our own time.

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