Why we still need to talk about the Holocaust

March 3, 2014

While at a garage sale, an African-American man asked the owner of the house if he was Jewish, because he felt the man selling the products was trying to drive a hard bargain. “Jews are always obsessed with money,” the man said. “And those Jew lawyers…they’re the worst. They’ll get you every time.”

“Hey now,” I held up my hand. “Let’s not go there.” The man stopped ranting, and the seller (a lifelong Southerner) nodded his head in agreement with me. That’s how it got started last time: negative stereotypes and exaggerated claims, without many people to speak out against such talk. It was only a few years ago that someone painted a swastika in our neighborhood. I painted over it.

Only a day or two earlier, one of my students asked what the Holocaust was. After I explained what happened, this person asked “and when did all of this happen?”

Luckily, Dr. Loren Pinkerman of LaGrange College’s Lewis Library is bringing in a guest speaker on Tuesday, March 4, at 11:15 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. to talk about the subject. It’s Dr. Steve Gowler, a Professor at Berea College who teaches a class on the Holocaust. Dr. Gowler is an expert on finding ways that local communities can stay aware of those tragic events of the 1930s and 1940s.

I told Dr. Pinkerman I was glad he was bringing in Dr. Gowler, as I related a story from my college days at Texas. I was a section editor of an independent student newspaper, financed through ads. We were battered by the recession of the early 1990s and were in danger of closing our doors at any moment. That was my only source of income (other than help from folks).

A national group offered to rescue us with a huge, full-page ad and was willing to pay several times the value of that ad, money that could have rescued our revenues. But it was an ad denying that the Holocaust ever happened.

We told them no. We worked extra hard so that we would at least make budget by the end of the year. We did, and at least folded with no debts. The college administration took over, and forced many of its independent-minded writers out (including me), so I lost my job because we didn’t run that advertisement. But I don’t regret it at all. And I landed on my feet, as USAA offered me a position that fall to write in their public relations department.

Luckily, things aren’t all that bad when it comes how people evaluate the Holocaust today. Iran’s newly elected President Hassan Rouhani called the Holocaust a “crime against humanity” and denounced the actions of the Nazis. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy.” Both are under fire from hardliners for those remarks, but this is a positive development in a country that has denied the Holocaust ever existed since Islamists took power in 1979. Those Iranian reformers are sticking their necks out for the Jews. What are we doing?

Please join Dr. Gowler at LaGrange College on March 4. Take your family, and your classmates. Encourage your neighbors to come. You never know how your actions might change people’s thinking, or enlighten them, about past tragedies that don’t need to be repeated.