This academic year marks the second session of Writing Lives, a two-semester project at Langara College, coordinated by instructor Dr. Rachel Mines. Writing Lives is a partnership between Langara, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Azrieli Foundation.
This fall, students are learning about the Holocaust by studying literary and historical texts. They are using the resources of the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library to help them write detailed research projects on prewar Jewish communities in Europe. In January, students will begin interviewing local Holocaust survivors and then write the survivors’ memoirs on the basis of the interviews. Students are keeping journals of their personal reflections on their experiences as Writing Lives participants. Many students used their first journal entry to reflect on how the course material is changing their perceptions of current events. Here are some excerpts.
I have learned that a racist interaction between a person of colour and a white person is not only between those two specific people. In that interaction is embedded an entire history of racism. A racist society supports white and racist ideology in a way that has historically privileged white people and embeds power in a racist interaction. The social conditions in a racist society psychologically prime the person of colour to strategize in certain ways during interactions they may perceive as dangerous.
Similarly (I realize now), Jews were emotionally and psychologically primed by their history of using appeasement as a successful, non-violent form of survival-as-resistance. This history surely psychologically primed the German oppressors to see the Jews as appropriate targets for their unprecedented scapegoating and the ensuing genocide.
This is one of the few times so far that a concept I have learned as an undergrad is beginning to take hold in my mind, tangibly changing the way I think and interpret information. I am learning to more broadly apply what I have learned about oppression and resistance. My evolving thought process gives me hope that I will in my life have a greater understanding of such dynamics and that I will contribute to the effort to understand, influence and mitigate, or even transform, dynamics between people of power and vulnerable populations.
– April Curry
Learning about the origins of Nazi Germany, the slow and steady rise to power of Hitler and his party, and the various influences that led to the Holocaust has been enlightening, in a troubling way, of course. One of the scariest eye-openers about what I have learned recently is just how human this chain of events was. A hurt and angry nation was ready to find anything and anyone to take their frustrations out on. It’s scary how this chain of events makes sense in retrospect. Yet it’s also disturbing how little thought I gave to this chain of events; they were things that happened, so I left it at that. But there is so much insight to be gained from reading into this history. Learning the history of the Holocaust and the build-up to it has given me a sense of awareness. I feel much more enlightened thanks to learning this history.
– Clayton Dott
There has been much focus on Hitler’s personal pathology (his lack of self-esteem, sense of being an outsider, etc.) to explain his primal role in the Holocaust. Problematically, this view assumes that Hitler’s racist system of values and beliefs arose outside of the environment he lived in. It is clear, however, that antisemitism, a racist ideology, existed long before his time. Furthermore, restricting the discourse to individual pathology denies the connection between Nazi violence and antisemitism, as though “lone wolves,” driven by individual malice, had committed the crimes. For example, the claim that “without Hitler, no Holocaust” denies the incessant influence of historical antisemitism and other dominant ideologies, such as Aryan supremacy and nationalism. Moreover, placing an emphasis on personal characteristics fails to take into account structural oppression. Fascist and authoritarian leaders may be charismatic, but the popular support they garner relies heavily on their ability to create a sociopolitical framework that allows for organized and systematic coercion and manufacture of consent, achieved by subjecting people to and satiating them with dogmatic education and media propaganda.
– Marc Perez
As the class explored the factors that contributed to the prejudice and antisemitism that led to the Holocaust, I was confronted with the reality of the deep and painful cost that the fear of disconnection and abandonment has on our society. Research has shown that the human need for belonging, connection and community is in fact one of the precipitating causes of racism. It is strange and uncomfortable to step away from my generally positive understanding of connection and find that belonging can be built on the loyalty earned by excluding others. In fact, the act of ostracizing and dehumanizing others can help form a shared identity and sense of belonging.
In what ways do I meet my own needs for belonging when I fail to speak up after a racist joke is told or someone is scolded for not speaking English to their own peer group in the line at Starbucks? We have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when people like myself, with so much social privilege, fail to disrupt these sorts of racist attacks? In this way, am I not complicit in the propagation of intolerance and social isolation in my own community?
– L. Ann Thomas