From its opening ceremony, when students watched members of the Jewish War Veterans, Scottsdale Post 210 conduct an honor guard through the halls of Congregation Beth Tefillah, the Holocaust Education Forum for Teens on Nov. 11 offered participants a unique opportunity to engage with the lessons of the Holocaust with an emphasis on how anti-Semitism and hatred manifest in the world today.
The program, organized by the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Phoenix Holocaust Association and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, began in 2014 with a mission to honor veterans and teach teenagers about America’s role in defending freedom.
Holocaust survivor Oskar Knoblauch shared his story, followed by a presentation by Dr. Larry Bell of AZJHS on American policy toward Germany and the Holocaust during World War II, a presentation by Cathy Lee of the Anti-Defamation League on contemporary anti-Semitism and a Q&A session with Bill Klein, a World War II veteran. Afterward, students asked the panel about ways to combat extremism in their own lives.
The event took place on Veteran’s Day, and Elaine Hirsch, BJE’s director of adult learning, took a moment to thank veterans, including her father and son, for their service. She also noted the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, two days prior to the event.
In remembering Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, “we mourn not only what was lost, but the promise of what will never be,” Hirsch said. “In a short span of time of this forum, we hope that you will glean lessons and apply them to your own life.”
Knoblauch, who worked as a Holocaust educator in Arizona for years and is a frequent speaker at Holocaust education events in the community, shared his story with students: how his family witnessed the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933; how they fled to Poland in 1936 only to come under Nazi rule again when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939; how they were forced to live in a ghetto in Poland, where they were deprived of food and heat; and how he, his siblings and his mother survived by showing respect and with the help of the few people who stood up for him.
Throughout his story, Knoblauch reiterated his message to students: Be an upstander, not a bystander.
He called out the neighbors who watched other boys bully him in Poland and did nothing. And he shared his strategy for standing up to those bullies, inspired by his father: “I approached them with a smile on my face, a big smile, looked the main bully straight in the eyes and said to him, ‘You don’t know me, but I do. And I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud to be a Jew,’ pointing to my Star of David,” Knoblauch said. “They didn’t want to hear that. They were surprised. And yes, after days they let me go without being bothered.”
He encouraged students to do the same, to be proud of who they are.
“You all are different, and that’s the good part. God wanted us to be different,” he said.
In the presentation that followed, Bell set out to cover the key moments in America’s response to the Holocaust. As Germany stripped Jews of citizenship with the passage of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935 and banned Jewish athletes from the 1936 Olympic Games, the U.S. remained a bystander. When German officials permitted looting, destruction and attacks on the Jewish community during Kristallnacht in 1938, the events were widely reported in U.S. media — yet government officials remained quiet.
At the same time, Bell noted, the U.S. was making it difficult — “artificially difficult, even more difficult than it needed to be,” he said — for European Jewish refugees to find safe harbor in the country.
Even after the U.S. joined the war, no public statement was issued condemning the mass murder of Jews, and the U.S. government refused to consider death camps or the railroads leading to them as bomb targets.
“The lesson of the Holocaust teaches us that doing nothing only aids the killers,” Bell said. “Yet the reaction of many Americans today remains the same as in the 1930s and ‘40s: We cannot solve the world’s problems ... As a result, I would argue that the story of America and the Holocaust is a struggle that we still live with even today.”
Cathy Lee, assistant education director at the ADL San Diego, brought the lessons imparted by Knoblauch and Bell into a contemporary context with a presentation on anti-Semitism, including troubling statistics: violent anti-Semitic incidents have tripled over the last three years, and the amount of anti-Semitic propaganda generated by white supremacist groups is rising.
Lee also focused on the prevalence of harassment and hate speech online, and encouraged students to speak up and get involved in anti-hate speech campaigns.
Finally, Tony Fusco, AZJHS’ education coordinator, conducted a Q&A with Bill Klein, a veteran of World War II who served in the Merchant Marine. Although Klein is a Christian, he is now an honorary member of the Jewish War Veterans.
“I was so pleased when they gave me that award,” Klein said. “I really feel that I’m so proud to be even associated and a part of that group, they’re a fine bunch of gentleman. And it has a prominent place on the wall in my home.”
Klein described his experience in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters as a Merchant Marine during World War II. As U.S. soldiers entered concentration camps and liberated them at the end of the war, Klein was among those delivering food and medical supplies to the soldiers and the survivors.
“When I think of the first warm blanket that’s given to one of the survivors, the first cup of coffee, the first cigarette, it was all delivered by the Merchant Marine,” Klein said. “We have that satisfaction of being able to help out.”
Panelists also dedicated the final 20 minutes of the presentation to questions from students, which primarily focused on how to apply the lessons of the forum to their own lives. One student asked the panelists how he could criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, and Lee and Bell encouraged him to be thoughtful about what he was criticizing so as not to invoke anti-Semitic tropes.
“Criticizing politicians is different than criticizing the right for Israel to exist,” Lee said. “So as long as you are criticizing the politicians or the government because you disagree with their views, and your disagreements aren’t based in anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes, then that, to me, is not anti-Semitic.”
Another teacher asked panelists how students could approach conversations with their parents if their parents denied the events of the Holocaust or professed white supremacist views.
Lee advised them to listen, to share personal stories about people in their life who come from different backgrounds, and to be persistent in countering those beliefs.
“You cannot combat hate with hate,” Lee said. “Bias is universal, we all have bias within us, so make them feel like you are not condemning them on their views, right away anyway, and then work with them to add more narratives.” JN