Thursday, November 3, 2016

Michael Berenbaum Speaks of Education and Compassion for Ray Wolpow Institute Inauguration

Holocaust Studies scholar Michael Berenbaum came to Western October 19th to deliver the inaugural lecture for the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study ofthe Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity. With retired Western Professor Ray Wolpow and Holocaust survivor NoƩmi Ban in attendance, Berenbaum outlined the history of the Holocaust and looked to the future and the importance of the studies that will take place at the new institute.

Barenbaum began the evening on a light note by lauding Western and Ray Wolpow for the values embodied by the creation of the institute and a commitment to “honor excellence in education.” Berenbaum continued by saying, “The fact that this university focuses on holocaust education says in part that it’s trying to make its students better students, its teachers better teachers, and the world in which they inhabit a better place.” He then explained that his talk would focus on three main points: Holocaust history, its implications, and education.   

According to Berenbaum the history of the Holocaust can be broken down into six key terms: “definition, expropriation, concentration, mobile kill units, death camps, and deportation.” He spoke poignantly on the consolidation of power in Germany and how these six devastating points were able to arise out of a prospering country through political maneuvering and eventually “reduc[ing] the human being to raw material.” He expressed concern for the possibility of those circumstances recurring without education to create conscientious citizens.

In his extensive work with scholars and survivors of genocide, Berenbaum explained there is a constant theme. He said, “The survivors had a question. . . how do I get on with life? How do I rebuild?”

It was clear that Berenbaum sees awareness and education as the keys to moving on. He calls the Holocaust the “paradigmatic genocide.” When he gives lectures at West Point on how to recognize and behave when confronted by genocide he says, “The first lesson is to look at the Holocaust because it was done by an army under orders.” Berenbaum teaches people about these similarities and signs in the hope that future injustices can be prevented.

He talked further about the importance of education and awareness for everyone saying, “[the Holocaust] is an event that must be confronted.” He also cited repeated injustices occurring throughout the world including the crises in Rwanda, Syria, Sudan, Darfur, and Aleppo, and police brutality everywhere, and he encouraged students to become aware and fight against injustice. “Now,” he said, “we understand that not to be involved is also to be involved.” 

The distinguished speaker also spoke about compassion and empathy. He spoke of some of the words he likes to live by, saying, “In a world of ugliness create beauty. In a world of difference create empathy.”

In response to the popular question “what would you like most of all?” Berenbaum replies, “I would like to be irrelevant.” The acclaimed scholar and documentarian says that he would like to live in a world that is so educated and compassionate that his expertise would become unnecessary. He said, “the reason teachers teach Holocaust education is because most teachers really want to be good teachers and they find it works and this material speaks to the lives, the fears, the hopes, the desperations, and the aspirations of students…So I think Holocaust education is essential.”

It only makes sense then, that he expressed such excitement for the opening of the Ray Wolpow Institute and its commitment to Holocaust and genocide education. According to Berenbaum, “there is no greater tool of teachers of this generation to discuss some of the issues of racism and prejudice, discrimination and persecution, and all of the other elements involved than this tool called Holocaust education.”

According to a Western Today article, “The institute will provide Western students with global education rooted in the liberal arts that investigates the Holocaust, genocide and crimes against humanity from various perspectives and academic disciplines. The institute also will address the state’s recommendation to teach the Holocaust in public schools, by giving future teachers in training at Western this much-needed background. And new courses will be created at Western as part of an anticipated academic minor in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.”

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