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RANGELY I In the rush and hurry of everyday life, it can be easy to forget.
Only rarely do most of us think about the millions of Jewish people and millions more who, for their ethnicity, religion or politics, died as part of a mass genocide initiated by Germany’s Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
That’s why, on a federal level, the United States Congress established Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust in 1979. The eight-day period in April or May aims to honor not only victims of the Holocaust but also its survivors, those bold enough to stand up against it and the soldiers who ultimately stopped it.
“The events and results of the Holocaust were so devastating; it’s an extreme we can barely imagine,” said United States Holocaust Museum film curator Raye Farr. “But we remember. We remember because it is an unthinkable scar on humanity. We need to understand what human beings are capable of.”
Around the same time as the Days of Remembrance, faculty, staff and students at Colorado Northwestern Community College gather to remember, too.
Each year, CNCC’s Holocaust Awareness Week features different historic and current events lectures, documentary showings and discussions. A Field of Flags in front of the McLaughlin Building invites students to reflect on the lives of 12 million Jews, Soviets, Poles, Communists and disabled people extinguished in a 12-year period. Each flag on the field represents 5,000 lives.
The week gives students a way to glimpse immeasurable loss, see hatred at its most blind, and experience redemption in individual courage.
It also introduces students to the complexity of events leading up to the Holocaust and the broad range of crimes against humanity the term encompasses.
“Every year, it amazes me how much history our students are unfamiliar with,” said CNCC head volleyball coach April Sanchez, who initiated the Awareness Week four years ago with sociology/psychology instructor Jessica Kruger. “When someone says ‘Holocaust,’ they instantly think of ‘gas chambers and crematoria.’ However, they have little information outside of that realm.”
Sanchez, who initially came to CNCC as a history instructor and coach after being graduated from Colorado Mesa University (CMU), had participated in Holocaust Awareness events organized by CMU professors Elisabeth Propes and Dr. Vincent Patarino.
To Sanchez, contacting those professors to learn the logistics of starting a similar awareness week at CNCC seemed natural, especially after she and Kruger realized they had both studied genocide, had a passion for global issues and wanted to educate students about them.
Now, four years in, Sanchez and Kruger are committed to helping students more fully understand what the Holocaust means. That includes introducing them to its phases, the ideologies and discriminatory legislation that led up to mass murder and the diverse political, ethnic and social groups targeted by the Nazis.
Holocaust Awareness Week training, Sanchez said, also includes the concept of “responsibility” that the ordinary people who stood passively by and accepted the stories of those in authority played a direct part in the decimating of their own people.
“German citizens who followed orders and ideology, silent bystanders and the Nazi State had a role in the Holocaust, not just Adolf Hitler,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. Chris Leighton of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies agreed.
“(These are) people who follow orders without question, bystanders who watch and do nothing, ordinary men and women simply going with the flow,” Leighton said in the Days of Remembrance “Why We Remember” film. “It’s so mind-boggling that the temptations to forget and to repress and put it out of mind, are very real.”
CNCC’s week exposes students to more than Holocaust education and remembrance. It also speaks to a common humanity that deserves dignity and protection, and that, in places around the world, is still being marginalized and destroyed.
That’s why instructors also host presentations about recent and ongoing genocides of people groups. This year, while Sanchez spoke about the Holocaust, history instructor Ryan Wilson talked about the genocide in Rwanda, and Kruger discussed the newest developments in the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. One presentation drew close to 70 students, faculty and staff.
Kruger and Sanchez plan for the Awareness Week to continue, noting that new material about ongoing genocides will likely continue to inform discussions.
Still, the words of Holocaust survivor Margit Meissner give cause for hope, especially in reminding organizers and participants of the purpose behind efforts like these.
“The important thing is that one should not become indifferent to the suffering of others, that one should not stand by and just raise one’s hands and say, ‘There is nothing I can do, I’m just a little, one person,’” Meissner said. “Because I think what every one of us does matters.”
To learn more about CNCC’s Holocaust Awareness Week or get involved in future activities, contact April Sanchez at email@example.com. To find out more about the U.S. Congress Days of Remembrance, go to www.ushmm.org/remember/days-of-remembrance.