Echoes and Reflections of My Past: The Best and Worst of Humankind

As I prepare to retire from my role as the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) this month, I have spent considerable time reflecting on my past and the experiences that shaped me over the last half century. I came to the ADL exactly 50 years ago, fresh out of law school, and fueled with a passion to fight for the safety and security of the Jewish people. This passion, no doubt, is always and forever informed by being a child survivor of the Holocaust, hidden by my Polish-Catholic nanny, and then miraculously reunited with my parents. Surely, I am a product of the worst in humankind and the best in humankind.

Many know that I survived World War II and the Holocaust thanks to my nanny, but some don’t realize that after being reunited with my parents at the age of 5, I had to learn how to be Jewish. One thing I remember is making the sign of the cross in the home of my parents, who were observant Jews. Even once I was reunited with my parents, I did not know who or what I was. As a child, with my nanny, I had been a good practicing Catholic. I grappled with this terrible burden for years and those feelings and memories left a lasting impression. The Holocaust changed the trajectory of my life—and millions of others—simply because we were Jewish.

The transformation that followed, and the rediscovery and reengagement with my Jewish faith and culture, was not easy; but the experiences of my childhood coupled with the lessons my parents taught me inspired my lifelong commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and ensuring the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

The devastation of the Holocaust has ripple effects beyond what is often taught in textbooks or as a passing reference in a history class.  Every single survivor has a story—stories often replete with horror, desperation, and a one in a million chance of survival. I realized early on that it is very important to provide a human voice to the Holocaust so that others understand that each life lost or saved was a person with feelings, experiences, family, and a future.  It’s easy for people to repeat “six million” and “never forget” without actually understanding what that means for both the Jewish people and the human race.

So it may come as no surprise that as I retire, I do so with the greatest pride in the role the ADL has had in building Echoes and Reflections, our Holocaust education program developed in partnership with USC Shoah Foundation, Yad Vashem, and the ongoing leadership and support of Dana and Yossie Hollander.  This innovative program lends that human voice to the experiences of the Holocaust and prepares teachers to help students understand the ongoing relevance of this history to our contemporary society.  

This work has never been so critical. Can you imagine my disgust as I read articles about Eric Hunt (a Holocaust denier known for attacking Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel) who is creating a virtual “Holocaust Hoax Museum” that will dispute the Holocaust happened?  It seems inconceivable that in 2015 Holocaust imagery and phrases like, “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job” are being used on college campuses and to desecrate synagogues nationwide.  

How is it possible that seventy years after the Shoah, we are questioning whether or not Jews can live peacefully in pluralistic countries like France, Belgium, Sweden, or Denmark?  And just last month in Spain, three visibly identifiable Muslim women reportedly chanted, “Catch and kill all the Jews…. Exterminate them, exterminate them, the world will be better off,” while one of the women stabbed a doll of an Orthodox Jew with a knife.  

How horrific.

This rise of anti-Semitism here and abroad disturbs me deeply and is heartbreaking for the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remain, who fear that humankind has really not learned from the horrors of its past.  For me, I want my grandchildren to understand that evil exists in this world, and that Jews and other groups of people are being persecuted even today, but just as importantly, I want them to know that there are far more people out there who will stand for others, who challenge misinformation, stereotypes, and who do not and will not sit idly by in the face of hate.  

I have often said that until we develop an antidote to hate, education is our best response. I firmly believe this to be true.  This is why I have such a deep respect and gratitude for the more than 25,000 educators who have worked with Echoes and Reflections these past ten years.

For those of you reading this who are a part of our Echoes and Reflections educator community, I know that teaching about Holocaust history can be daunting and challenging, with limited time, competing priorities, and the need to respond to the many diverse needs of the young people in your classrooms.   I fear sometimes that we are giving you too heavy a burden; the history is too horrible, too complex, too removed for many students in 2015.  

Yet, you do not shy away from the challenge.  Every day, we see more and more of you come to our programs, you help your students understand the seemingly incomprehensible level of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, you ask them the tough questions and help them make meaningful connections, and you find enough grace and hope in this dark past to give belief in a brighter future.  It is your actions that give me hope in a brighter future.

For this, as a Holocaust survivor, as a Jew, as a father and grandfather, I say thank you.

Abraham H. Foxman, is the former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Currently, he is the head of the Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

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