Yom HaShoah Message: Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander


"Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be an oppressor. But thou shalt never be a bystander," distinguished Holocaust scholar and author Yehuda Bauer stated to the German Bundestag in 1998. He even suggested it was time to add these three mandates to the Ten Commandments.  Yet, since that speech a decade-and-a-half ago, human beings continue to watch as others are being oppressed and killed.

In fact, less than 70 years after the end of the darkest chapter in human history – a chapter that so many around the world prayed and vowed “Never Again” — genocides are occurring in Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Darfur, and Syria.  

As Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is commemorated on April 27, we must wonder if there is a way to understand and explain these reoccurrences, or to watch with bewilderment, inaction, paralysis and pious proclamations from the leaders across the globe? In the Holocaust’s aftermath, the international community responded by adopting conventions and resolutions for the crime of genocide, all in response to the atrocities committed during World War II.   Clearly, though, societies around the world must do more than just having political leaders condemn, or stand by, while   innocent people die.

Reflecting recently on the 20 years since the Rwanda Genocide, many scholars and media pundits asked, “Why hasn’t the world learned anything?”  Perhaps the real question should be, “How can we teach our young people not to be bystanders?”  How can we change the world through our youth?

One beacon of hope occurred in 2005, when the UN passed a resolution declaring January 27th the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.  The significance of the resolution is its call for a remembrance of past crimes with the purpose of preventing them in the future.  It also provided for a mandate to the UN to educate people about the Holocaust, as the paradigmatic genocide, all over the globe. The resolution passed unanimously.

In the U.S., however, there are only five states that have mandatory Holocaust education. Now is the time to develop serious academic programs that educate our students about the Holocaust.  Studies made on Holocaust education have found that the most meaningful and effective way to educate youth is through “one on one” conversations with survivors. The mere opportunity to hear first-hand testimonies through asking their own questions is both profound and transformative.  . When students will sit across from a victim they quickly understand the importance of not being a bystander.

Paul Rusesabagina, the real life hero of the film “Hotel Rwanda” and the man who saved over 1,200 lives during the episode of ethnic cleansing that took place in Rwanda in 1994, recently spoke to students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys as part of the Holocaust oral history film documentary project “Names, Not Numbers.”   He told the young audience that hatred and intolerance begins with words.   He described his experiences during that tragic period, the helplessness of those he sheltered and his disappointment with the world for failing to intervene.  The students attending the session shared with him the lessons that they learned from their interviews of Holocaust survivors and compared his heroism with that of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in German-occupied Hungary who led an extensive and successful mission to save the lives of nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews.

Youth can make a difference in preventing future acts of genocide in the world, wherever they may occur.  They can be inspired by and follow in the footsteps of Messrs. Rusesabagina and Wallenberg, and the many other valiant individuals who have not only stood up but taken action against intolerance and oppression.   The future of the world is in their hands. 

But this future will not be a bright one unless youth are educated, unless they are taught to appreciate and respect differences, unless they know how to prevent prejudice and hatred, intolerance and injustice.  The first step is to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in the other 45 states. 

Tova Rosenberg, director of the Hebrew Language Department at Yeshiva University High Schools, is the creator of "Names, Not Numbers"–Holocaust Oral History Film Documentary Project.