What had appeared to many of us to be an isolated and inevitable event turned out to have been, according to the historian Martin Gilbert, systematically and chronologically planned. From the Russian empire to the very night of Kristallnacht, from an estimation of 91 deaths to several hundred, history appears to be shaped by who is telling it. Kristallnacht was indeed not an isolated event, but the consequence of numerous antecedent events and the diabolical desire of a man wanting to impose his ideas of racial superiority.
Silence is complicit. This phrase seemed even more palpable to me when I attended the rededication of the Holocaust Memorial in Boston. A glance at the delegation composed mainly of my classmates and teachers, who had come to be part of such an event and stand up against what is wrong, gave me confidence in the power of individuals to shape the course of historical events.
As Abel Herzberg so aptly pointed out: “Six million Jews were not murdered during the Holocaust. One Jew was murdered six million times.” So, what if, at the time of Kristallnacht, another group of students had stood up and done something similar? What if this action against complicit silence had been replicated six million times? Would these evil actions have reached their climax in 1941?
Human beings always, in some form or another, have the last word on what happens in the world. We can use our words as we want to create any desired outcome.
The most dangerous results of the use of words, in my opinion, are stereotypes: oversimplified, distorted, misleading generalizations that go against identity, humanity, and dignity. A few months ago, I personally felt the pain of such a dehumanizing tool when the leader of the free world used highly degrading terms to describe my home country, Haiti, thus jeopardizing my identity as a young, proud, Haitian woman. These words will inevitably be one of the first things remembered by many people. They are now an element of reference to my identity.
Sometimes I can perceive the exact moment when the association between myself and these words is made on the faces of people I meet in the United States, now more than before. What I learned from this incident is that stereotypes give birth to beliefs like prejudice, and eventually hostilities such as racism and anti-Semitism. I became, to many people, what somebody told them I was and not who I really am, and that is how dehumanization happens.
Stereotypes have the power to dispossess people from vital tools. They take away identity and dignity, the most crucial aspects of humankind. The feeling of belonging somewhere gives us an anchor in this world and motivates us to interact with one another. Without this idea of belonging, one is nothing but a body that reacts to its environment. When someone is promoting an ideology capable of destroying such things it directly forces a step back on a long and demanding journey toward peace in the world, peace in all of its forms. It is a step back from the promises made on Dec. 10, 1948: promises of world peace, of human rights, of human dignity. Before the executions of these six million souls, there were speeches that encouraged such an attitude, thus leading to the formation of such an ideology. Considering that these signs are already arising, stereotypes, in all their forms, at any level, should be considered as an urgent crisis.
I acknowledge that history has the unfortunate feature of being repeated. I also acknowledge that evolution takes time and requires constant, gradual effort from all involved and that no promises are to be taken for granted. This long journey requires tolerance and mutual respect for other people’s ideas, beliefs, ethnicities, and identities. Exoticism is not synonymous with a threat or inferiority, and the complex of superiority is inherently shameful.
When stereotypes are encouraged by people who are leaders of any sort it increases the effect of these stereotypes even more. Remember, it only took one man and a book to carry out the actions of the ideology that led to the Holocaust. The glass was not broken because of the messenger alone, but because of the number of followers. We, human beings, and only us, have the power to combat the imminent threat of more broken glass and broken promises.
I wrote an essay; what will you do?
Sherley Maximin is a senior at Malden High School. She wrote this essay in response to visiting the New England Holocaust Memorial after it was vandalized by a student from her high school. It won first place in the upper division of the 12th Annual Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest.
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