An Imperative Lesson: Holocaust Week

Will Wraith, Writer

The room was filled with unmistakably grim silence as he inspected the mere four pages in the text book assigned to cover the most atrocious act of genocide mankind has ever had the horror of witnessing. It was an expression of disappointment and dissatisfaction that met the class’s eyes again to say, “We’re going to answer the deeper questions this week.”

Stephen Bernich’s favorite topic to teach in World History is World War II and it’s no secret. Not for its gruesome details, as one might be quick to assume, but for its role in being a catalyst to massive world change in the Post-War era. “It all changes after WWII,” says the history teacher of seven years, who is one of two new faculty members to join the department this year. “Everything in the early twentieth century is being drawn into that thin part of the hour glass that is World War II and all of those grains of sand are coming out differently on the other side.”

When it came time in the curriculum to cover the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s massive genocide of Jews and other non-Aryan groups during WW II, Bernich had something unique planned. “These text books are formulated to have you guys read and memorize some information, then boom here’s a test. But it’s really not that easy,” Bernich explains. “I just don’t believe the Holocaust can be truly comprehended that way.”

Bernich, University of Delaware alum, has taught half year courses on genocide talking about more modern topics, like the 1994 Rwandan mass slaughter that took the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 members of the Tutsi population, to analyze the moral history of mankind. “There is no logic behind any of the decisions made during genocide, so when you ask yourself why or how, there is no reason, no valid explanation,” Bernich voices, “It will never really make any sense.” An attempt at fitting all of these ideas into a three day span of lessons proved intriguing.

It began Monday with discussions; no books, no handouts, no videos: just words to venture into the darkness. Students were exhausted on the first day back, but no one dared to neglect the information being relayed to them. Eyes were open, minds attentive. One junior commented in disbelief at the “number of murders of people from other groups [she] had no idea about.” The Holocaust was not only a hunt to expunge the world of the “Jewish race”, but also Hitler’s quest for an ethnical cleanse of Germany. Only the perfect Aryan was fit to live in his eyes. Poles, the disabled, and homosexuals were sent to death camps as well. Of the estimated 10 million or more victims of the Holocaust, around 6 million people were Jews and 4 million were not.

The second day dug deeper with visuals. Graphic images of the monstrosities performed by the Einsattzgruppen, Nazi mobile killing squads, were displayed. One black and white photograph showed a Jewish victim on his knees at the edge of a mass grave, armed Nazis behind him with no place to flee to. Though extremely upsetting, this example of helplessness was only a glimpse at the heinous crimes of the Nazis. It is believed that as many as seven hundred Jews at a time were murdered in poisonous gas chambers at the multiple death camps installed all across Europe by Hitler’s regime. Over a million people alone died at the expansive compound known as Auschwitz.

The third and final day of analysis proved the most unique. Students knew something “powerful” was planned for Wednesday. They expected a documentary on Auschwitz. What they were given was David Cash Jr.

In 1996, seven-year-old Sherice Iverson was chased into a Las Vegas casino bathroom, raped, and then murdered by Cal Berkeley English student Jeremy Strohmeyer. David Cash Jr., Strohmeyer’s best friend, witnessed the crime unfolding as Strohmeyer held the seven-year-old captive in a stall threatening her with murder if she made a cry for help. Cash left the situation without notifying authorities of the crime and continued to drink with Strohmeyer for the remainder of the night even after his friend admitted to murdering Iverson. Strohmeyer and Cash were only identified three days after the crime through video surveillance footage. Cash was never charged with any crimes and graduated from the engineering school at Cal despite outrage from the majority of his campus. Cash technically could never be charged for any of the choices he made that fateful night. Much like the Nazi soldiers who complied with the orders of their superiors regardless of their own personal beliefs, Cash stood by and failed to act in a humane manner that, although not legally required, was a moral obligation.

By showing the class a special on Cash, Bernich wants to express that to be a bystander in a crime is to essentially assist in a crime. “As clichéd as it sounds, you guys really are the future,” Bernich explains, “Events like the Holocaust should never be allowed to repeat in history again. It’s inexcusable and that’s where I tried to draw a parallel with David Cash.” Students were disgusted, but rapt by the selfishness of the situation. The presentation forces students to rethink how they would react in such a situation. A simple idea, but so immeasurably significant, is the one primary message behind the lesson: Never stand by and watch as evil occurs; act. To forget these evils is to neglect the lessons learned from mankind’s mistakes.

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winning Holocaust survivor, reminds us of this obligation with his famous passage from Night:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”