Michael Berenbaum’s dream, as a teacher of the Holocaust, was to become irrelevant.
But — as he told a gathering of educators at Kean University in Union last week — that dream has been swept aside by a wave of postwar atrocities around the world.
“It seems,” the noted historian, author, and museum founder said, “that the subject is more relevant than it was 30 years ago.” The Nazi atrocities, he said, foreshadowed some of the most urgent issues of our times.
In the March 31 seminar hosted by Kean’s Jewish Studies Program, Berenbaum laid out the imperative for “Teaching the Holocaust in a Time of Genocide.” Though nothing can compensate for the lives lost in the Holocaust, he said, the invaluable lessons that can be gleaned from this unique atrocity are a way of “salvaging something from the ashes.”
The event, part of the program’s Spring Visiting Scholars Series, drew 44 Holocaust educators from around the state, from graduate students to high school teachers and college professors. They listened to Berenbaum with rapt attention for close to five hours.
Berenbaum, an ordained rabbi, is the director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a professor in its Jewish Studies Department. He was also the founding director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and served as president and CEO of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
He spoke without notes, his tone light and matter-of-fact, but he left no question as to the evil he was describing. Citing survivor testimonies, he provided the educators with images, he said, that speak for themselves. “We teach the Holocaust because great material yields great teaching,” he told them.
Some have objected to the Holocaust’s being compared to other genocides. “To compare isn’t to equate,” he said, and stressed that there is no hierarchy of suffering. What sets the Holocaust apart is that it was deliberate, intentional state policy carried out by one of the most sophisticated and highly developed societies in the world, a policy sustained for 12 years and across 24 countries.
It was about the disposal of people deemed “superfluous,” he said. Underlying that was the perception of certain groups as “other.” That made it possible for the Nazis to treat the Jews — and also, though with a different end goal, Romany people, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and Jehovah’s Witnesses — as filth, to be used like an industrial commodity and then “flushed” away.
He cited the comment, “They oiled the machines but didn’t feed the people.”
‘What do we preserve?’
The largest question facing different groups today, he said, is “whether they can find in their tradition that which accepts the ‘other’ as a fellow creature also made in the image of God,” rather than demonizing them as infidels or enemies.
“The fate of the world may depend on what version of your tradition you choose,” he stated.
He emphasized that such dehumanization of the “other” is not happening to the same extent in the United States. “We are not going there; we have many restraints,” he said, Still, he warned that “the problem is real.”
The biggest political conflicts revolve around “superfluous” populations, he said, those too young or old or sickly to be productive, and “non-citizens — people told, ‘You have no right to be here.’”
He asked: “In a moment of scarce resources, what do we preserve?”
Getting rid of those regarded as superfluous “will forever be a temptation of the state,” he added. What holds that at bay is a covenant — like Social Security — that the able will provide education, and care for the elderly, rather than people looking out only for themselves.
“No issue is more relevant,” he said.