Last month, students involved in the Brigidine Academic Enrichment program attended an “Ethics and Ending Othering” event run by the Sydney Jewish Museum. Through the study of the Holocaust, we explored the nature of social bias, the concept of “othering”, and the rise in contemporary antisemitism.
This excursion powerfully illustrated the dangers of stereotypes and prejudice. It challenged our own biases and understanding of power and authority. The preservation of memory, we learnt, stops history repeating itself. In understanding the loss of life and dignity during the Holocaust, I could understand the consequences of discrimination and our role in enabling change.
We all make decisions at crucial junctures-whether to be silent or to speak out. During the Holocaust in occupied countries and those which collaborated with Nazi Germany some condemned the violence and helped Jews. Others actively helped the Nazi regime, supporting the persecution of the marginalised. Most, however, stayed silent. To be silent is to be complicit. Neutrality, passiveness, submission all help the oppressor, never the victim. As our guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum told us, “It is easy to look back, harder to move forward and even harder to look within.”
I would be unable to comprehend the past without the courage of those who told and continue to tell their stories. During our excursion last month, we were fortunate enough to hear Holocaust survivor Paul Drexler’s story. He was born in what was then known as Czechoslovakia in 1938, was sent to a concentration camp as a young boy in 1944. That was the last time Paul ever saw his father. He was later sent to Theresienstadt, a waiting room for Auschwitz. Paul told us of his gratitude for life, for, if he had arrived only a few weeks before, he would have died. Paul told us of his mother, a woman who he described as stoic and compassionate, strong and brave. After the war, many survivors would not speak of their past, but Paul Drexler’s mother couldn’t remain silent. Her courage, Paul said, was incredibly powerful.
Sometimes we can lose our grasp upon the truth. Overlook the lessons history tell us. Hearing Paul Drexler’s story opened my eyes to the enduring pain, suffering and despair the Holocaust caused. He shared every detail, shedding light upon his lost childhood.
Our excursion allowed me to truly look within myself. I realised that humanity can be incredibly cruel, yet in a similar way, we all have a powerful kindness within us. It is just our choice whether we harness it for good. During World War II a man named Nicholas Winter strove to uphold freedom and dignity. Winton organised a rescue operation which brought 669 children, mostly Jewish, to safety in Great Britain. Winton did not desire to be a hero; he simply saw people in need. I think we can all emulate the compassion of Nicholas Winter – taking small actions that have a monumental impact on the lives of others.