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John Nichols: Holocaust education is essential

John Nichols: Holocaust education is essential

Germany Holocaust Buchenwald (copy)

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, center, lays a wreath during commemorations marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald on Sunday near Weimar, Germany.

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The Wisconsin Assembly got something right last week, when it gave bipartisan approval to a measure requiring that instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides be incorporated into the social studies curriculum of Wisconsin schools.

This is a needed initiative at a time when state Rep. Lisa Subeck, the Madison Democrat who co-sponsored the Holocaust education measure, notes survey evidence that “two-thirds of Americans under the age of 40 do not know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and nearly half could not name a single concentration camp.”

We can’t assume that people know enough about the Holocaust, or about the duty we all have to stand up to those who would deny or dismiss this historical reality.

On Jan. 6, when supporters of Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, one of the most photographed insurrectionists was a Virginia man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Beneath the image of a skull, the jersey announced, “Work Brings Freedom,” a rough translation of the message, “Arbeit macht frei,” that appeared over the gates through which passed the 1.1 million men, women and children — 960,000 of them Jews — who were murdered in the Nazi death camps.

The man who wore that sweatshirt mingled freely with the insurrectionists. He was photographed with a crowd that brandished the broken nameplate from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. Rabbi Jay Kornsgold, the son of Holocaust survivors, was horrified. “When you see it in the nation’s capital, right in front of your face,” he said, “it pierces the heart.”

This is just one of the reasons why so many Wisconsinites were shocked when U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said he "never felt threatened" by the Jan. 6 rioters. "I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn't concerned," the Republican senator said.

Johnson is not a Holocaust denier or an anti-Semite. Yet, his casual response to the attack on the Capitol — which left five dead, including a police officer — was tone deaf. The senator did not consider why his colleagues and people across the country were unsettled by not just the violence on Jan.  6, but by the evidence of racism, neo-fascism and anti-Semitism. He simply declared “those were people that love this country” and pronounced himself to be unconcerned.

We should all be concerned. The insurrection offered the latest evidence of the extent to which anti-Semitic hate infects society. And of the need to call it out. Among the defenders of Confederate memorials who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 were young men who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” After Trump supporters stormed Washington in mid-December of last year — in an anticipation of Jan. 6 — the Anti-Defamation League noted that “an image started circulating on social media. The image was taken in Washington, D.C. and featured a man standing alongside a group of Proud Boys and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the cryptic text ‘6MWE.’ This code for ‘6 Million Wasn’t Enough’ is a not-so-veiled reference to the Holocaust.”

Those who wear “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts and “6MWE” t-shirts may be irredeemable. But education about the Holocaust in particular, and genocide more broadly, teaches us the danger of this hatred — and the need to call it out when we see it.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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