To Bear Witness

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must, at that moment, become the center of the universe.”

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Price Acceptance Speech, 1986

As educators, we must encourage our students to examine the stories of those who have been the subject of discrimination and hate. In doing so, they learn to recognize and respond to these acts. Our hope is that the work we do with our students will help empower them with the skills to be upstanders rather than bystanders. so human dignity is not put in jeopardy, and they graduate from high school with the skills to affect positive and ethical social change.  

This can be difficult at times as events fade into history and become less relevant to the lived experience of our students. In a 2020 Pew Study, results showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans are unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 23% of respondents 18-39 years old believe the Holocaust is a myth or exaggeration.   

Knowing this, how do educators combat misinformation, apathy, or mistrust of other humans? A foundational part of being an upstander is developing the skill of empathy. A recent study and article reviewed by Psychology Today in August 2021 show that teenagers are naturally developing deeper empathic skills from age 14-18. And, what accelerates this development? Relationships. Developing deep and meaningful relationships is key to developing empathy.

It is not just about developing relationships with people but about finding ways to build meaningful connections to past and current events. Our students have shared how difficult it can be to connect with notable events they were not alive to experience. An op-ed in The Gator this year displays the intellectual struggle some students have putting 9/11 into context. It is not that teenagers do not care; they struggle when they lack personal connection to what happened. 

We actively seek to bridge that gap by inviting guests and members of our community to share their personal stories. In reference to his own life story, Elie Wiesel, author of Night and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, once shared that “whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” Recently, Steve Goldberg came to campus virtually to share the story of Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek with our students in Grades 7-12. Mr. Goldberg met Mr. Piasek while teaching history. After hearing Mr. Piasek speak to his students, they developed a close relationship. Mr. Goldberg was deeply moved by Mr. Piasek’s story and decided to record his presentations to keep his legacy alive, a decision that became increasingly important following Mr. Piasek’s death in 2020. In committing his time to retell Mr. Piasek’s story, Mr. Goldberg is helping to inform and create a new generation of witnesses. His time with our students deepened their connection to and understanding of the Holocaust by giving them a personal story to recount. By listening, they became witnesses who can now share Mr. Piasek’s life story with others.