Editor’s Note: English teacher Ryan Tyree presented the following during the All-School Assembly on Wednesday, February 6.
For Holocaust educators, this is the rallying cry, the promise we remember each day, to stay alert and guard against the threat – that history will repeat itself. On Jan. 27, 1945 Allied troops liberated the largest Nazi Labor and Death Camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. For the last several years, that date has been set aside to reflect upon and remember the events known to us as the holocaust.
The holocaust was an event of global proportions, involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers. The most-commonly accepted time frame spans from 1933 to 1945.
You’ve heard of the trickle-down concept? The Holocaust was carried out from the highest levels of authority down. It was the organized, state-sponsored, bureaucratic, legal persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews and other targeted groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. What was wrong with these targeted groups? Why mistrust them, why shun them, why hate them? At the most basic level, they were outsiders. Supposedly different. Other.
When we study the Holocaust, it can help us to understand the origins and consequences of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping in any society. We become aware that democratic institutions, values, beliefs, ways of life – are not automatically sustained, but need to be appreciated, nurtured, and protected; democracy is a fragile thing.
So you say, Democracy? Government? Institutions? It’s called trickle DOWN, what say can I have? I’m a high school student, I’m a teacher, I don’t set or make the rules, and my vote only counts one time!
I appreciate that position; I’ve felt that way many times. But this mode of thinking is one we can change—and if I had to title this little talk, I’d call it trickle UP. I’ll come back to that.
First we need to talk about origins here. How do you take a society with generations of rich heritage and history, art, music and culture, and end up at Auschwitz? Where does that start? Scary thing is, It starts here, with us, in this room.
On an individual level, we all make choices each day that affect others. We make these choices to satisfy a desire to fit in, feel accepted, receive praise, and so on. Not always, but sometimes, in order to feel accepted, to fit in, we have learned the practice of excluding people that are different. Cast an unsavory glance their way… Something inside of us causes us to AVOID otherness. Ask Ms. Brown in MEM sometime about a recent study of babies less than a year old who showed an aversion to ‘otherness.’
Since the days when humans were scribbling on caves – we don’t identify with otherness, so we mistrust, dislike, or outwardly show aggression toward things we do not understand.
What’s wrong with us? I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an imperfection. An inherent flaw in our DNA. This is an ugly truth to uncover.
Writers, poets, singers, playwrights, filmmakers, and other artists have been probing this idea for centuries. The notion that somehow humanity is inherently flawed sounds a bit like religious talk – but you don’t have to subscribe to any religion in the world to see that hatred is real and has real consequences. The Holocaust. Rwanda. Armenia. The Killing Fields. Darfur. I could go on.
Right and wrong does exist, good and evil do exist. But here’s the kicker, they both exist within us, at once, at the same time. As humans, YES, we have the capacity for great acts of love, courage, kindness, compassion, and valor—but there also resides in us a darker passenger that these great artists and literary figures I mentioned have never tired of exploring.
Consider a moment in Lord of the Flies, when one small boy is splashing in the waves. Another, older boy stands on the sand and throws rocks into the surf. The older boy begins to throw stones in the direction of the smaller lad, making a perimeter around him in the water. We learn that this character has a great capacity for evil, and this moment in the novel shows just how close he is to changing his aim so that it strikes the defenseless and innocent little boy. This can be seen as a metaphor for humanity.
Or take the words of Frost, who wrote a poem about New Englanders coming out each spring to rebuild the stone walls marking their property lines. The questions is posed as to why there needs to be a wall up between friendly neighbors at all… And the response? Good fences make good neighbors. Here of course the implication is that these walls we put up somehow protect us – but from who? From some outer force, or perhaps an internal one.
So on the one hand we have the fact that we struggle internally with prejudice and intolerance for people we don’t see eye to eye with.
And looking at the holocaust we see what can happen when we allow these feelings to go unchecked.
Our present generations stand close to the edge—of missing the warning signs. In order to see the signs one must have their eyes and ears actively searching. Yet if we are honest with ourselves it isn’t hard to admit that we are being taught to keep our eyes firmly fixed in the mirror. Our social media, fed by advertising companies fed by multi-billion dollar conglomerates assures us that hey, it’s all about me baby. Take care of number one. YOLO! (‘You Only Live Once’)
How can we be expected to guard against hatred and intolerance with our attention so increasingly driven inward?
It’s all about choices. And it starts here, with us, in this room. The events leading up to something like the holocaust don’t happen overnight. They happen choice, by choice, by choice. There are perpetrators, there are victims, and there are bystanders. In the dorm, on the pathways to class, in the locker room, standing silent when you see something unpleasant is still a choice.
My hope is that we can each make the kinds of choices that look out for the common good, for each other. Create, here, at Williston, a culture of students and teachers who will carry that benevolent spirit ahead into adulthood. This is the Trickle UP method. We are each a small custodian of humanity. Together we can strive to resist our impulses to reject otherness, and help to ensure that intolerance and hatred are not allowed to run unchecked.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Holocaust was not an accident. It occurred because individuals, organizations, and governments made choices that not only legalized discrimination but also allowed prejudice, hatred, and ultimately, mass murder, to occur. But it starts with individuals. It starts with us. Let’s make history remember us well. You, you, you, me. Let’s trickle UP.