How I went from Silicon Valley to teaching about the Holocaust – opinion

In the early 1980s, I was recruited by a human rights organization to introduce the Holocaust into high school and college curricula across the United States. The donors appreciated that I studied the Holocaust and lived and worked in Israel, that I spent part of my childhood in Germany, including a visit to Dachau which left a lasting impression . But they loved that I wasn’t Jewish (Thomas Patrick Hogan – do the math).

It’s hard to appreciate how little Americans knew about the Holocaust at the time, most of their knowledge coming from the Holocaust, a Roots-type miniseries starring a young Meryl Streep. My first contact with high schools and colleges resulted in a standard response: “We don’t have a Jewish studies program.” I explained that the subject was not religious or cultural in nature, that its proper focus was the history department. But no takers.

What cracked the code and started the program were two related events. The first was to create a two-week unit that not only focused on Hitler’s rise to power – and the world ambivalence that followed – but also drew parallels between Hitler’s six-point formula. for genocide and its American counterparts, slavery and our extinction campaign against Native Americans. This contemporary focus elicited passionate reactions from parents and American history teachers, but it shed light on the curriculum and the lessons it was attempting to deliver.

But it was the second part, the testimony of Holocaust survivors, that really put us on the map. Most had poignant stories that they had never shared even with their families, so they were naturally hesitant to tell them in public. But a brave person, Anne Tieger, a survivor of six camps, agreed to speak.

She didn’t have any prepared remarks, but answered every question put to her in a soft voice for at least an hour, usually longer. Schools alerted local newspapers and TV stations, and the resulting coverage encouraged other survivors to share their experiences. Within a year, our schedule was booked over 12 months, including my teaching a one-semester Holocaust course at two local universities.

YOUNG JEWS from around the world take part in the March of the Living visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 2019 (Credit: YOSSI ZELIGER / FLASH90)

AFTER MANAGING the program for several years, I passed it on to my successor and entered the business world. Silicon Valley was in its teens and I found myself as the first member of the marketing department of a hot start-up called Oracle. During my seven years there, I wrote the annual reports and brochures for the company, launched Oracle Magazine, and led all advertising, trade show and outreach programs. With this experience, I started a small marketing agency that worked with the VC (Venture Capital) community to position and launch the start-ups that are the bread and butter of the Valley. In 10 years, we have launched 51 startups, 17 of which went public or were acquired. With this toll (VC’s normal success rate is less than 10%), we were scorching.

But working with our start-ups, I have also seen the rise of autocratic regimes and hate crimes across the world. And it worried me that the world was watching rather than addressing these events. Today’s events gave me a feeling of déjà vu: I had seen similar events and attitudes in 1930s Germany. Our new president openly admired autocratic rulers and encouraged racism and conflict. . Its supporters displayed the same fanaticism and penchant for violence as the Brown Shirts of the early Nazi regime. A vigorous attack on the truth and a free press was underway, with Steven Miller replacing Joseph Goebbels. Then January 6 brought our version of the Reichstag fire and a nostalgia for martial law. And our response? The same disbelief and the same sense of helplessness that had crippled Germany as Hitler asserted her power and launched his campaign against the Jews. And that scared me.

So I sold the agency, left the world of VC and returned to academia, to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I taught two courses, the first on the lessons of the Holocaust, the second on the genocides of the 20th century.

Faced with my decision to change careers, I was asked if I feared the Holocaust would be forgotten. No, the Holocaust was now embedded in high school and university curricula. But the contemporary lessons of the Holocaust were being ignored. Some of my fellow professors wondered if I was exaggerating the parallels between the United States of today and the Germany of the 1930s. My response was that they were thinking of the Germany of 1938-1939, with the Nazism at its peak. My students, on the other hand, were mapping current events with Germany from 1933-1938, when German inaction and world ambivalence combined to enable an unprecedented world war and campaign of mass murder.

The main thing I wanted to convey to my students was that genocide is cancer: it has stages. To fight it you have to attack early and aggressively. Waiting and hoping is not an option. Because by the time the camps are built, the trains are running and the crematoriums are working overtime, we are at step 4, with no predictable positive outcome.

SO HOW did we set out to modernize the Holocaust? To begin with, we debunked the popular phrase “Never Again”. Since the term was defined and adopted in 1944, “genocide” has been perpetrated historically (Cambodia, Rwanda) as well as today (Sudan, Myanmar, China). And the world either ignores them entirely as politically convenient or cites reasons why it cannot intervene.

Which brings us to the second lesson: reconsider the intervention. History has proven that there are only three ways to end genocide: 1) we lack human fuel; 2) armed intervention; and 3) a concerted effort by the world community. Given the rarity of number 3, we need to reconsider how and when we fit into world events. But “intervention” these days has become pejorative: walk around any college campus these days and you’ll see table after table demanding “US Out of _______” but you will search in vain for a table that asks. “US Into Darfur. ”

My students are also bringing the Holocaust home by addressing pressing questions such as: How can a legitimate government counter insurgent movements (Proud Boys, Oath Keepers) and stay within the standards of our democracy? Or when does freedom of speech become hate speech? How can a divided America find the common ground of intervening in genocides at an early stage? And finally, what role should the United Nations play in all of this?

Here’s the gist: history is clean, current events are dirty. Just as we can berate ourselves for not getting involved in Rwanda or Bosnia earlier, we will do the same years from now on the genocides that are happening under our watch. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get a little dirty. Because this time the threat isn’t just “over there”, it’s here.

The writer is a professor of Holocaust studies. His novel on Auschwitz, Le Souffle du Diable, has just been published.

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