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Opinion: A Holocaust remembrance — and lessons we have yet to learn

Two young German-Jewish refugees at the porthole of the liner St. Louis finally arrive at Antwerp, after being refused entry to Cuba and Miami prior to the start of World War II.
Gerry Cranham
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Two young German-Jewish refugees at the porthole of the liner St. Louis finally arrive at Antwerp, after being refused entry to Cuba and Miami prior to the start of World War II.

The German ocean liner St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg in 1939. The 937 passengers onboard were trying to escape genocide.

The Nuremberg Laws of Hitler's Germany had classified Jews an inferior race. Jewish children had been expelled from schools. Concentration camps had been opened. Jewish-owned businesses destroyed.

Adolf Hitler told his Reichstag, "If war erupts, it will mean the extermination of European Jews."

Soon, he would start that war.

But the U.S. government had strict limits on immigration, even for people in flight for their lives. Isolationism and antisemitism were widespread. The revered American aviator, Charles Lindbergh, would warn a rally in 1941 about Jews, saying, "Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government."

The St. Louis was turned away from the U.S., Cuba and Canada. The ship had to return to Europe, where hundreds of its passengers would die in concentration camps.

During this week of Holocaust Memorial Day, a recent survey from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows most states do not have laws requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust. This is at a time when antisemitic incidents, including hate crimes, are rising.

Teaching students the history of the Holocaust isn't just for history. It's to help them recognize crimes against humanity that occur time and again, as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and other places, including China's detention of Muslim Uyghurs today. And it's to face up to America's own crimes in slavery and segregation.

The Holocaust was the calculated, industrial murder of 6 million Jews. Millions more, including Roma, gay men, people with disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses and dissidents were also executed. The forces that aided mass murder weren't just overseas. America's slow response helped the Holocaust happen.

As Martha Gellhorn, the great journalist, wrote from the Dachau concentration camp after it had been liberated by U.S. soldiers in April 1945, "We are not entirely guiltless, we the Allies, because it took us twelve years to open the gates of Dachau. We were blind and unbelieving and slow, and that we can never be again."

Today, many people trying to flee death from tyranny, crime and poverty are being turned back at America's borders. Should more, not fewer, students learn about the Holocaust?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 28, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that U.S. soldiers liberated the Dachau concentration camp in June 1944. The camp was liberated in April 1945.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.