On an overcast afternoon in Washington, D.C., sitting with about 120 other high school students from around the country, I listened to the empowering words of Holocaust survivor Henry Greenbaum as he described his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. He declared that it wasn’t one particular beneficial trait or talent that enabled him to survive the Holocaust, but just the fact that he had been fortunate. It wasn’t survival of the fittest in the concentration camps but survival of the luckiest.
Greenbaum was speaking during the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 10th annual National Youth Leadership Mission, which took place over a four-day period in our nation’s capital. The mission sought to educate and empower teens around the country by relating the lessons of the Holocaust to current issues of bigotry.
Having grown up in Los Angeles and attended a private school for the past five years, one of the things that particularly excited me was being able to connect with people my age from completely different backgrounds and perspectives.
The main highlight of the conference was visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I discovered the true horrors of hatred and silence. One section that specifically affected me was a hallway filled with Holocaust victims’ shoes, where I saw a literal, concrete representation of the true enormity of lives taken in the concentration camps.
It seems my feelings were similar to Greenbaum’s, who mentioned that this is the one section of the museum he tries to avoid, for fear of becoming too overcome with emotion. When asked why, he said that it was entirely possible that one of those shoes had belonged to a member of his family or to one of his friends, and this was just too haunting for him to bear.
In addition to Greenbaum, we heard from a professional Nazi prosecutor, an activist fighting current discrimination in places around the world, and also from many people from the ADL who have made abolishing discrimination their life’s work.
We were fortunate enough to talk with Dr. Leon Bass, an African American who fought in World War II. He explained how he has sometimes questioned why he was even fighting for a country that did not treat him as a capable, equal citizen, and how he has constantly struggled with others’ belief that he “wasn’t good enough.”
Through every aspect of the program, I began to recognize all forms of discrimination and bigotry. Jeremy Browning, a conference delegate from Detroit, said, “You really can’t talk about community and peace without meeting and getting to know people who aren’t like you.”
Feeling similarly to Browning, I especially enjoyed developing relationships with people my age from all over the country, who possess unbelievable qualities of leadership and empathy, and have given me hope for our future generations.
Throughout the conference, I began to realize that not every German citizen — and not even every German soldier — had been an evil, cold-blooded person. They had been misled by ingenious propaganda, stifled by severe fear and, in many cases, had become simply too lazy to care about what was going on around them, as long as it didn’t directly affect them.
Comprehending this made me adamantly decide that I refuse to be a bystander of hate; I refuse to be silenced and to become a living example of the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Stephen Czujko, a student from Washington, D.C., who also attended the program, said, “I feel like my experience has helped me to mature and has given me the confidence to really make a difference.”
Czujko and some of his classmates are planning to have a Holocaust survivor visit their school and also want to raise money and awareness about the genocide in Darfur.
Browning and his peers are planning to lobby the Michigan state government for legislation requiring that the Holocaust and other genocides be taught in public schools. Erica McMahon, a conference delegate from Washington, D.C., is in the process of initiating a STAND (Students Taking Action Now Darfur) chapter at her high school.
“We are determined to make a difference, and I know that I can, because there are 120 people [that she met at the conference] doing the same thing,” she said.
With this in mind, the 10 Los Angeles delegates that attended the conference, in addition to about 10 more teens from the city dedicated to inspiring social progress, are beginning to formulate a social action project targeted to benefit our city. Hopefully, our vision will spread to many other communities.
Teenage leaders are beginning to act throughout the country, and I know that it is my generation’s turn to stand up and fight for the changes that we are certainly capable of achieving.
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