Written by Alison Vick
On January 9 2016, I walked alone into Auschwitz. As a historian of Modern Germany and 20th century war crimes I thought I knew what to expect of my visit. Never have I been more wrong.
Every step carried me beyond my senses to an ethereal plane of humanity—a tenth circle of hell. A hell where the mechanical replaces human feeling. In the center is a mirror that reveals your innermost self; it serves as a reminder that even the most ordinary person can become complicit in genocide through hate, jealousy, apathy, and a willingness to follow to corrupt authority. And that corruption of the human soul often starts slowly, subtly.
That evening, I kissed a small stone and set it atop a memorial at Auschwitz II as an eternal sign for the victims of the Holocaust. Around me, I saw visitors from all corners of the world who came to honor the Jews, Poles, Slovenes, Czechs, and million others who perished at Auschwitz during the world’s worst genocide That sight renewed my faith that we as human beings could uphold that sacred promise we pledge the twelve-million victims of the Holocaust: “Never Again!”
On January 9 2021, five years to the day after my visit to Auschwitz, I read about the brazen antisemitism expressed by American rioters during their assault on the United States Capitol. With a churning stomach, I listened to the news of rioters wearing the shirts: “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE—Six Million Weren’t Enough.” I could not imagine how those rioters dared declare themselves citizens of the United States—the great bastion of freedom, tolerance, and democracy in the world; and a country that fought the Nazis and liberated camps in Europe. Tragically, the displays by those rioters marked another chapter in the horrific rise of contemporary, American antisemitism.
Our country and communities stand at a historically divisive crossroads. But as educators and scholars who are invested in our students, we have agency in shaping their worldviews. We can help our students understand we all belong to the human community and are responsible for practicing acceptance. As Teaching Fellows for the Tennessee State Holocaust Commission, we are members of a community that can help students connect past to present, and evaluate the importance of individual responsibility historically, and contemporarily. In doing so, we can all help our students discover that they have the choice to become Oskar Schindlers in a world full of Amon Göths. Then, “Never Again!” will ring triumphant.