Hi, everyone. My name is Mr. Toren. I am a Class IV homeroom teacher in the Lower School, that is, the building with all of the smaller ones over that way [gestures West]. There are many of you here in Middle and Upper School who know me directly. I’ve now taught at Waterford long enough to have former students in here right now! That fills me both with pride and terror. Those who know me know my love of cheerful conversation and laughter. But, I am in fact here to talk about something both serious and important. This Friday, Jan. 27, is International Holocaust Memorial Day. I am not going to lie to you; this is not the easiest thing for me to talk about. Yet, I am here because this all matters. Your learning matters to me and to the world.
A little background about me. I am Jewish. I was raised in a Jewish community in Israel, Cleveland, and then Seattle. My father’s side has been Jewish as far back as we know. They immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s from the Jewish ghettos of Ukraine and Romania, before the holocaust happened. I think about those fortunes a lot. Here you can see my grandparents on their wedding day. My mother’s ancestors were, ironically, German immigrants who had been here in the U.S. a long time. Here is a picture of her father, my grandfather, in uniform. He fought in the American army against the Nazis.
I am talking about heavy, heavy things, things that my parents and community first taught me when I was 7, and I have been digesting ever since. I think it’s important that we go over some basic background terminology and history so we’re all on the same page here. First is the word antisemitism. Antisemitism is prejudice against or the hatred of Jewish people. Since I’m talking about Europe today, I want to mention a few things about European antisemitism, though antisemitism certainly exists throughout the world. It is very, very old. For most of Europe’s history, Jews were banished from countries (such as from England in 1290), blamed for things like the Black Plague, were prohibited from owning land or farms and joining some professions, faced extreme violence in the form of angry riots or the crusades, and were (and still are) targets of ridiculous conspiracy theories.
Sadly, because of this history, the holocaust did not come out of nowhere. During his reign of fascist hate, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the German Nazis, along with his allies, took over many European countries, from Poland, to Ukraine, to Denmark, and even France. With each country he conquered, his disgusting policies followed. I’m here to talk about those “policies.”
Hitler was obsessed with the idea that German people and blood were better than everything else, and that the worst thing that could happen to Germans would be to mix with and be polluted by “inferior races.” This might sound like racism to you. That’s because it was, the worst kind of it. In fact, it was nearly every kind of “ism” as we’ll soon see. He targeted Jews especially, and called them—me—“less than human” and compared them—me—to rats. He and his government first forced Jews to live in cramped neighborhoods called Ghettos as you can see here, living in poor conditions, sectioning them off from the rest of the population. They lost their homes, property, and most belongings. Though some non-Jewish Germans tried to protect their neighbors, such as, famously, Anne Frank’s friends, the vast majority of Germans were either silent or even celebratory. Nazis and others trashed and bombed Jewish businesses, schools, and synagogues–Jewish places of worship. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars to make sure everyone knew who they were, and therefore could be treated poorly.
The next phase of Hitler’s—and the Nazis’—hatred of Jews was far worse. This was what became known as the holocaust, or shoah, as we call it in Hebrew. It was the creation of places called concentration camps and, later, death camps. Whomever the Nazis thought of as inferior to the German race was sent there, not just the Jews. Concentration camps, such as those in Aushwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau, were utterly reprehensible, disgusting testaments to human cruelty. They were camps where Jews, LGBTQ people, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, and even the homeless were enslaved under the harshest conditions. Their arms were branded with numbers–tattoos that I grew up seeing on the arms of the holocaust survivors in my community. They were fed meager meals and forced to work. Any show of weakness meant death. In fact, at a certain point, they would send large groups of Jews and others (adults, children–it did not matter) to large chambers, where they were killed by poisonous gasses. Their bodies were then dumped into mass graves—for Jews to bury them. Many were sent to extermination or death camps, such as Treblinka, whose purpose is obvious.
What was shocking and truly disgusting was this was more than just an emotional hate—hatred that spills over in a fight. It was the fact that this mass murder became a system. It became mathematical and scientific. Though normally we think of the scariest hate as a simmering pot, ready to boil over. Really, the most terrifying kind is one that is cool and calculated.
Fortunately, the Nazis were defeated in 1945, and their plans to rid the world of “others” failed. But, it was still too late for many, many human lives. All in all, 6 million Jews, and millions of Russians, Slavs, and others, were killed in these camps. Can you even comprehend that number? For Jews alone, the number would be almost the population of two Utahs. In fact, two thirds of European Jews were wiped out. Imagine if only 1 in every 3 of you and your friends survived simply because of how you were born.
This is all understandably very, very heavy. Yet, it is a weight everyone must bear. Why? Why now? What should we do with this knowledge?
First, we are not far enough away from it. This happened a mere 75 years ago. Some of your grandparents were alive when this happened. Yet, it is long enough ago that the generation of survivors is dying out due to old age. We must carry on their stories. Furthermore, more importantly than distance in time, is the distance in attitude and behavior. I remember being shouted antisemitic profanity when I was merely a child younger than you walking on the street, and later in high school when running track and cross country. I remember when bomb threats were made to our Jewish school and synagogues all throughout my youth. Swastikas, crooked crosses of the Nazis, were painted on our Jewish high school. Merely seeing that symbol was (and still is) a sucker punch to my gut, my soul. To me, it reads, “You are worthless and must die.” There were more than 500 reported incidents of anti-semitism in the U.S. alone just last year, from spray-painted swastikas to physical assaults on visibly Jewish individuals. A mere 4 years ago, a murderer stormed into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and shot Jews in prayer on Yom Kippur, our holiest day of the year, killing 11. At my current synagogue in Salt Lake City, we make sure there is a police presence every time we congregate to protect us, should hate come storming in. I do not think the holocaust is a distant memory. In fact, hate is so, so old that it is difficult to fully defeat, and needs to be fought whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head, even now.
Which brings me to my second point. We Jews often use the phrase “Never Again” when we commemorate the holocaust. It did not come from nowhere. Hatred boiled, boiled, and with a few additional ingredients, turned into an atrocity. The holocaust was an attempt at genocide, or the killing off of an entire people. Unfortunately, the holocaust was not the last attempt. Recent history with segregation, and in Armenia, Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, and the Uyghurs tell us that this fight for human dignity, against hate, is never over. When we say “Never Again,” we’re not just talking about the Jews. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds me, and should remind everyone, that the diminishment of someone’s existence is a moral crime, one that can lead to the worst atrocities. It is also a reminder that we can stop it, just as my grandfather helped do decades ago. In fact, today Germany is home to a growing Jewish community once again. Here you can see a particularly powerful memorial I saw in Berlin, thousands of concrete slabs the size of coffins that represent the many killed. I felt a psychological healing as I got lost in that maze years ago.
What can you personally do? What could a teenage student possibly do? You can stop someone from flippantly demeaning an entire group of people with insults and harmful stereotypes. You can stop someone from writing hateful messages and symbols. You can educate yourself and others about differences of people and ways of life, and that these differences can make our personal lives, community, school, country, and world better.
Can you make the world brighter than before, for everyone? Absolutely. Why do you think I’m a teacher? Holocaust Memorial Day charges you and me with that task. Though the holocaust was a truly ugly time, those of you who know me know I truly believe that this world is a beautiful place. We all have a moral duty to keep, protect, preserve, and spread that beauty. Thank you
Akiva Toren entered education following his B.A. in philosophy and music from McGill University in Montreal, QC. He spent a year working with first graders and kindergarteners before and after school in the Seattle Public Schools system. Following that, he received his M.A. in teaching from University of Portland through their P.A.C.E program, a teaching fellowship that places its teachers in schools throughout the west. The P.A.C.E. program placed him in Kearns, UT, and he taught fourth grade there for four years. In 2017, Akiva joined the Waterford team to teach Class IV.
Akiva’s interests vary widely, as he has studied music, philosophy, ancient languages, and even received honors in Hebrew. He has lived in many countries, from Israel to Scotland, and loves to share his love of languages, cultures, and history with his students. Utah, with its varying mountains, deserts, forests, and snow, has captured his heart. He enjoys the outdoors by hiking and running, and loves the arts Salt Lake City offers, such as the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, and the many festivals that take place in and around the valley.
August 10, 2020
June 5, 2020
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