I’m sitting on the bed in my dorm room and reflecting on the evening I just had.
We – my roommate and I – started by settling in. Since I didn’t bring all that much, unpacking wasn’t really a huge issue, so I immediately set about trying to find an internet connection. I got online for a few precious moments, and haven’t been able to log on again from the room since; I’m hoping to find a more reliable connection in other parts of the college (and, if you’re reading this, I’ve succeeded).
At 5:45, we headed off to the Student Union to our opening dinner. Tom, the outreach coordinator for the program and someone whom I have come to think of as a friend and colleague, began the evening by blowing everyone’s eardrums out trying to test the microphone. After some technical difficulties, he decided to ditch the mic and went about explaining to us what we already knew; how incredibly privileged we all are to be here.
This program is among only 15 in the world that is recognized by Yad Vashem. The work that gets done here and the people who are educated here constitute an important aspect of Shoah studies and humanitarianism in general. The people who graduate from this program, and others like it, are going out into communities and schools and teaching not only about the facts, events, and circumstances of the Shoah, but are also teaching about acceptance, compassion, and the importance of the individual in the face of prejudice, oppression, and brutality. The larger lesson, beyond that the Shoah happened at all, is that it can happen again, and that the only thing keeping history from repeating itself is an educated, compassionate citizenry.
Tom proceeded to introduce some of the guest speakers who will be teaching us this week, and their credentials are impressive. There are so many stories to be told and so much experience to relate that I wonder how any of us are going to make it through the week. We didn’t get a nice, easy runway into the material, either; the keynote speaker, who addressed us right after dinner, was Sybille Sarah Niemoeller von Sell, widow to Martin Niemoeller and heroine in her own right. She delivered a beautiful speech about the necessity of action, about how indifference creates an environment in which evil can thrive, and about how remarkable it was that the Nazis had managed to create conditions under which even the most basic of human kindnesses were transformed into courageous acts of defiance.
After Niemoeller’s speech, we returned to the dorms where we’re staying and met in the large common area on the first floor for introductions. There are 29 of us – the largest fellowship group in the history of the program – and every one of us comes to this experience for reasons that are remarkably similar. Certainly, all the surface or professional motivations are different; some teach history and want a greater understanding of the era, some teach English and want better access to the history. Some have a family history in the Shoah and are interested in filling what one woman called “holes in my soul” about the events that forever changed the dynamic of their families – not only because of the ones who didn’t survive, but for the ones who did and couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it. Some don’t teach at all but, like my roommate, work in arenas of social justice and feel that they will be more effective in their jobs for having had this experience.
For all of those different motivations, though, we all come to this with one common need, and that is to understand OUR place in this history. Time is not discrete – something that happened in the past is never truly over and done with, and what came before is what determines where we are now, just as what happens now will determine what comes after. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I kept it short and to the point; I’m here because I feel a responsibility as a teacher, a parent, and a human being, to make sure that these stories get told. I owe it to the world to use my position as a teacher, a parent, a writer, and a citizen to pass along this knowledge to as many people as I can, and to encourage them to use the lessons that this era has to teach us about where we are now, and where we’re going. I need this to inform my life in terms of my understanding and embodiment of compassion and human dignity.
I’m terribly excited for the rest of the week. It’s not going to be easy, I know that already (I mentioned to my roommate on the way back to our room for the night that there’s absolutely ZERO chance that I’m going to get out of this week without crying), but I also know that this may be, to date, the most important professional work that I’ve done. There’s also zero chance that I’m not going to come out of this a much better person.