When it comes to spreading knowledge about past or ongoing human rights atrocities, there are many different outlets through which information can be transmitted. People can read about, and often watch the events online, or study them in classes, or read about them in printed newspapers. Obtaining knowledge of past and current atrocities—such as the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, the genocide in Darfur and terrible plight of Syrian refugees—is the first step toward prevention. History repeats itself and with the knowledge of what has happened in the past and with the desire to prevent any human being from suffering at the hands of another, we can grow closer to ensuring that catastrophes like these will never happen again.
While journalists and reporters can report information on a page, one of the most influential ways to spread awareness and inspire action is through testimonials. In my Human Rights and Genocide class taught by Professor Lower, we are analyzing media coverage of past and current atrocities, comparing coverage by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN and other media outlets. What I have identified as a common thread through all the case studies that we have delved into is the importance of framing; either evoking empathy for the victims or distancing us from them, newspapers and other outlets have the power to create empathy, and they do this most effectively through personal testimonies and photos of the victims. In the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims in 1995, the press only stated basic facts of what was going on and there were no testimonials or calls for action. However, in 1993 the viewer got his first glimpse of the situation on the ground in eastern Bosnia. There were video clips shown on the news of a soldier asking for help from in the midst of a crowd of emaciated people crying out for food. These strong ties to emotional aspects of testimonials were a form of empathy framing and led to heavy US involvement. This is just an example of how the media was able to inspire action through live testimony, and if they were able to do this with a two minute clip on the television, imagine how powerful a live testimony could be—with the victim standing only five feet in front of you.
Last week about twenty-five students in Professor Lower’s history classes experienced the power of first hand testimony when they were granted the opportunity to meet and interview Auschwitz survivor Theodore “Zev” Weiss. To prepare for his visit, the class came up with questions which were sent to him before he arrived. During our meeting at the athenaeum with Mr. Weiss, he started to answer our questions, but then went on to tell us the whole encompassing story of his experience in the Holocaust. Born in 1931 in a Jewish community in Debrecen, Hungary Mr. Weiss began by explaining that the anti-Semitic feelings in his town had been a part of an acceptable climate long before the Holocaust began. He recalled that it was normal for him to be beat up on his way back from the temple where, on weeknights, he had Hebrew School classes. After the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Mr. Weiss and his family were rounded up, forced into a ghetto and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was just 12 years old, yet able to remember it all. He remembered the train-ride to the camp and how there was little air. He recalled that it was summertime and that it took the train four days to travel to the camp. His first shock came when his grandmother did not survive the journey. Soon after that, he was subjected to a series of horrors he could not forget. Upon arrival at the camp, he was separated from his mother and then only a short time after that, his brother was taken to the gas chambers. As he continued his story, many members of my class were inspired and felt a connection to him that they had never felt from reading a newspaper article or a book about the facts of the Holocaust. Mr. Weiss was able to put a face to the atrocities, and by following his story, we were able to powerfully feel inclined to never let anything like this happen again.
Being able to hear Mr. Weiss’s personal account in a small setting was a special experience. Alexander Reeser (CMC ’16) said that, “such a personalized account from a Holocaust survivor is rare, especially as we become further removed from WWII. The stories he shared and the insight he provided regarding the Holocaust and Genocide education were humbling. Mr. Weiss’ stories definitely made everything we’ve learned in class come to life.”
Abbe Petuchowski (CMC ’16), also was inspired by Mr. Weiss’s talk. Abbe mentioned in class that she is Jewish, so I asked her how Mr. Weiss’s talk affected her. She replied: “having two grandparents that lived in Germany during World War II, I feel very emotionally moved and connected listening to Holocaust survivors. It was very chilling to hear Mr. Weiss describe his experiences. It was almost surreal to hear the way in which he was treated by German soldiers and police. The soldier’s subhuman, hateful treatment of Jews and other members of the concentration camps will always be incomprehensible to me. I think it is very important and informing to hear the experiences of Holocaust survivors. I think that education, especially eyewitness testimony, decreases the possibility of genocide and other human rights violations.”
Mr. Weiss had asked us to remember a particular part of his talk, even if we forget everything else. He said that if we take away anything from his talk, it should be this story: In the final days of the war, as Mr. Weiss lay nearly dead in a ditch along a roadside, he was spotted by an American soldier, a Quaker, who brought him to a nearby hospital. . After Mr. Weiss recovered, he asked the soldier why he had stopped to help him. The soldier explained that his mother had always told him: “Whenever you see any human being in help, and you do not stop to help him, that is when you stop being my son.”
This imperative to help those around you, no matter who they are, what color, what religion, what nationality, is one that reinforces the idea that we are not all merely members of our individual communities—we are not just American or just Jewish—but rather members of the world community of human beings. If we let atrocities like this continue to occur, we are not only ignoring the rights of others, but also denigrating what it means to be human. We are helping the perpetrators if we are not stopping them. In May of 1916, Ambassador Morgenthau deemed America the “Big Brother of the suffering world” and stated that America cannot sit peacefully in the comfort of its borders while its brothers and sisters across the globe are in trouble. To let your brother or sister suffer is to send a message to the world and set a precedent that it is ok to commit such atrocities.
Mr. Weiss’s talk allowed us to personally learn of the horrors the Jews went through during the Holocaust. He also established a principle that can follow through in any action we take in our futures; whenever we see someone in trouble, and we do not help him or her, we cease to be members of this human community, and even more dangerous, we lose our humanity.