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Close to Home: Why Holocaust and genocide education is still important

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to Holocaust Memorial Days.

Thirty years ago, following an annual Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial at Sonoma State University, local Holocaust survivors, SSU faculty and local community members came together to form the Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust at Sonoma State University to ensure that "never again" would such tragedies and devastation occur.

On Sunday, the alliance and the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide will commemorate three decades of support for Holocaust and genocide education at the university.

Challenged to do more than memorialize the Holocaust, the alliance has been the impetus behind what has become a long-standing university-community partnership. Each spring semester, the weekly Holocaust and Genocide Lecture Series educates students, teachers and the community about the causes and consequences of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and other modern genocides.

When I enrolled at SSU in 1986, I was surprised to learn that John Steiner was teaching courses on the sociology of the Holocaust. Steiner was also the founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust. From its very beginnings, the courses and the center were unique academic contributions to the emerging field of Holocaust studies. The program was also the inspiration for the first West Coast conference on women's experiences in the Holocaust, organized by the lecture series' first academic coordinator, Carol Hurwitz.

As a university educator, genocide scholar and current center director, I believe the issues confronting educators today are essentially the same as they were when I began teaching about the Holocaust and genocide: How do we create an educational environment in which students are able to comprehend the historical, recurring and current circumstances that lead to genocide?

Our students are aware of the Holocaust because high schools introduce them to it through reading of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Night" by Elie Wiesel. Many of them have also visited the United States Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Popular culture also contributes to a basic understanding of the Holocaust through films such as "Schindler's List," and students are also familiar with the Rwandan genocide because they have seen "Hotel Rwanda."

As educators, however, we face the difficulty of moving students to an analytic understanding of how genocide happens.

As a Holocaust educator, I have encouraged students to learn more about the world in which they live and to raise their awareness of the work of organizations that promote genocide prevention. In the past, our students have been inspired to go on to graduate study or work as social activists. Some have even visited Rwanda to see the work of FORA, the alliance's sister organization, which supports a broad variety of social service programs.

I am deeply grateful for the friendships I have with survivors of the Holocaust and genocide. Their insights have helped me understand the complexity of human experience. Their resilience and appreciation for life remind me of the gifts I have in my life. Without the dedication of the members of the alliance our lecture series would not exist. Their support is crucial to our task of educating students.

The theme of this year's series -#8212; "Never Again?" -#8212; has proved to mean never again will the Jews of Europe be murdered by a genocidal regime, bent on killing every single man, woman and child while the rest of the world does nothing to prevent it. It has become, however, a rallying cry for persistent vigilance and effective action to prevent genocide. It is also a promise we make that we will do everything we can to ensure the horrors of the Holocaust are not repeated.


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