In my junior year of high school, the Harrison Singers performed Holocaust Cantata: Songs from the Camps and while in Washington, D.C. for a choral festival, we visited the National Holocaust Museum to gain a better understanding of such a dark time in our human history and to help further connect us to the work. Each floor told a certain story, the rise of the Nazi Regime, the genocide, and the liberation of the camps.
I learned three things about myself: the type of leader I want to become, the type of world I want to live in, and the type of world I don’t want to live in. The first step in to this realization was holding a sobbing freshman who couldn’t understand how the world had allowed it to happen or how anyone could’ve done that to millions upon millions of people and neither could I. A portion of the museum, the tower of faces, extends two of the three floors and displays hundreds of photographs of the families and people murdered in the holocaust. It struck me, those faces looked just like me and like Alannah who was crying in my arms. “They all looked so happy.” She said into my shirt. There was nothing I could say to comfort her, no explanation. That day only reinforced my desire to enter public service and to become a part of the solution to the multitude of humanitarian crises that our nation seeks to aid and heal.
During a time when anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism, and anti-semitism was cultural norm, America was silent to the destruction of democracy and Jewish oppression in Germany. The 1928 Presidential Election of Herbert Hoover versus New York Governor, Al Smith and the refusal to port the SS Saint Louis was proof of an enabling America, a bystanding America. That is not the America I want to live in. My America lives by the creed inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” I was taken back by our ability to make a difference and our failure to do so until the end of the war because we had such isolationist policies in which I find selfish and disgusting. I firmly believe that America can be a force for good and when it has an opportunity to be it should be at every opportunity. So when dictators come to power, their demise are just as quick as their rise.
At the door, I received an identification card. Inside it said, “This card tells the story of real person who lived during the Holocaust.” My person was Boria Lerner, a political activist and leader in the Jewish Resistance. At each page of his story correlated with a floor. Lerner fought alongside the Spanish Republicans against fascism and “after the war ended in March of 1939, he enlisted in the French army to fight against the Nazis. But, due to an illness, he was unable to serve and was discharged. In 1941 he headed a unite of the Jew resistance overseeing the assembly and distribution of bombs in German-occupied cities. He was arrested, tortured, and after giving up no information, shot before a firing squad.”
His story begs us to remember what he and millions of others went through to preserve their culture and way of life. His story begs us to remember the Holocaust. His story begs us not to relive the mistakes of the past as we have before. His story begs us to question authority and demand the truth from our government and elected officials so that no one man or one group ever abuse its power so grossly as the Nazis had. We have an obligation to positively influence the world. Some say this is neither a task we asked for nor are obligated to carry out, but I say we are. Because if we don’t stand up for the things we understand to be right and just, who will? If this generation does not ick up the baton of leadership now, then when? This is an age old rhetorical question that demands us to answer it. Whether or not we realize it, we will answer it. We will answer it in how we live, in the men and women we elect, and in the policies we implement. Then we will be called upon to recount what we did “to make the world a bit better and more beautiful for having lived in it,” as philanthropist Edward W. Bok said.