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Symposium Furthers Holocaust Knowledge

March 15, 2007 By:
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Cardinal Justin Rigali
Maybe you learned about it in Hebrew school, or maybe you have a family member who's a survivor -- or a relative who didn't make it out of Europe -- but if you're Jewish, chances are good that you know of the Shoah.

But what about non-Jews?

How do they come to understand -- and possibly to empathize with -- the murder of more than 6 million people throughout Nazi-occupied Europe?

Education has been the focal point of an ongoing youth symposium on the Holocaust, sponsored by organizations like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Office for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Anti-Defamation League.

The annual event, held during the month of March, began last week with daylong programs at both St. Joseph's and LaSalle universities. It will continue on March 14 at West Chester University, and on March 22 at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

This year, which marks the 30th-such symposium, keynote speakers include Cardinal Justin Rigali, African-American concentration-camp liberator Leon Bass -- both of Philadelphia -- as well as area survivors.

Amy Blum, of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said that many of the 1,200 students who've registered have little or no knowledge of the Holocaust, since covering the topic is not required by Pennsylvania.

And those teachers who do broach the subject have limited time and resources to do so.

"It's almost more important because these kids are not Jewish," acknowledged Blum.

During last Monday's symposium, a group of teens listened intently as John Fox, an 80-year-old Huntington Valley resident, recounted his journey from a small town in Poland to the deprivations of ghetto life and, eventually, to the death camps.

At Mittelbau-Dora camp, Fox told students, his job was to load bodies onto a wagon; at Treblinka, he revealed that his mother was gassed to death.

"I don't talk about these things -- even to my kids," said Fox, tears welling in his eyes. "Man's bestiality to man is terrible."

'He Still Kept Fighting'

Such stories left a deep impression on Keely McClatchy, 16.

"I didn't know people had to live at the concentration camps; I thought they just went there to die," said the Archbishop John Carroll High School sophomore. "But I learned how people actually struggled through it."

Others, like 16-year-old Keisha Thompson, seemed taken by the speaker's courage.

"When bad things happen, some people can't even get up in the morning," said the Roxborough High School junior. "[Fox] had a hard life, but even in bad situations, he still kept fighting."

Students said that they related to the message articulated by World War II soldier Leon Bass as well.

Bass, a black man who said he suffered the repeated sting of "institutional racism" growing up, told students that he was horrified by the "walking dead" he saw at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

"I thought I was the only one who suffered," said Bass. "But I knew on this day that human suffering can touch all of us -- it's universal."

McClatchy agreed.

"It's kind of the same in Darfur with the genocide," she said. "You look at the past and think, 'That'll never happen today.' But it is happening today."

Picking up on that theme, Cardinal Rigali told the students that's why the onus to act falls on each and every individual.

"With your vigilance, in the future, this will be prevented," he stated. "You have an important part to play."

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