To See a Way Forward, We Must Face History | Facing History & Ourselves
Pensive Desmond

To See a Way Forward, We Must Face History

Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD, Facing History's President and CEO, reflects on his experience of visiting Holocaust extermination camps and how we must face this history head-on.

Mr. Slomsky, my 10th grade world history teacher, first taught me about the Holocaust. Within class discussions I learned all about antisemitism, hate, bigotry, white supremacy, ethnic cleansing, capture, deportation, enslavement, humiliation, torture, and extermination. I struggled with the inhumanity of it all. At the end of the unit, I simply wanted to know why. Why did humans do these things to humans? Why did humans not intervene? I remember directly asking Mr. Slomsky, “Why did this happen?” He looked at me, shook his head, raised his hands in uncertainty, and humbly uttered the words, “I don’t know why.”

Years later, while an undergraduate student, I was performing my duties as a Resident Assistant, giving an underclassman a hand as he moved into the dormitory. Accompanying the student was a man I assumed was his grandfather. As the gentleman went about his business of bringing in his grandson’s belongings, I noticed there were numbers tattooed on his forearm. I awkwardly stared at his arm in total curiosity. He noticed me gawking, then graciously pointed to the numbers on his arm and said, “They are what you think they are.” He proceeded to tell his grandson and me all about his capture, deportation, enslavement, and the eventual murder of everyone else in his family. As candid as he was, I remember him distinctly stating he’d prefer not to discuss the specifics of how he survived. At the end of the conversation, I repeated my inquiry from 10th grade world history and asked, “Why?” He, as Mr. Slomsky did, replied with humble uncertainty as he stated, “I don’t know why.”

Fast forward more than 30 years since Mr. Slomsky’s class, or my undergraduate studies, and I am now the President and CEO of Facing History & Ourselves, an organization that uses lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. I recently spent 10 days in Berlin, Warsaw, and Krakow on a learning journey. This trip, which took me to sites of unimaginable suffering, was a powerful reminder of the momentousness of facing the unfiltered truth of history.

In Berlin I visited the very place where individuals were captured, and I was reminded of the chilling efficiency with which the Nazis carried out their sinister plans. It was from here that countless innocent women, men, and children were forcibly transported to concentration camps. As I walked the streets, I noticed the stolpersteine, or "stumbling stones," on the ground. These small brass plaques embedded in the city's sidewalks bear the names and life details of those who were victims of the Nazi regime. I visited Humboldt University where the Nazis burned 20,000 books on May 10, 1933, the very sight where Heinrich Heine said, more than one hundred years prior to 1933, “Where you first burn books, you eventually burn people.”

In Warsaw I visited the ghettos. I saw the overcrowded, impoverished quarters where the Jewish residents endured unimaginable suffering, their lives overshadowed by the constant threat of deportation and death. My journey concluded with a stop at Auschwitz. Being on the grounds of this notorious former concentration and extermination camp is a haunting and profoundly emotional experience. It's a place that stands as a grim testament to the darkest depths of human cruelty and suffering. Walking through the camp, the enormity of the atrocities committed within its walls became painfully real. I saw piles and piles of the very clothes taken from the backs of innocent prisoners; the very shoes taken from the feet of toddlers; and the very strands of hair shaved from all of their heads. I saw the unrelenting and unsanitary living conditions. I ventured through the rooms where human beings were gassed and cremated. 

Mr. Slomsky introduced me to the horrors of the Holocaust; a kind gentleman blessed me with the recollections of a survivor; and my trip to Poland and Germany taught me the imperative of empathy, compassion, and respect for all humanity. While I will probably, to my satisfaction, never understand why humans commit atrocities against other humans, I am certain that hatred and bigotry are at the root of it all. I am convinced that the total dismantling of democracy is at the root. Additionally, the disallowance of fundamental freedoms of thought and speech is at the root. Acting as bystanders while the “othering” of any group of people is allowed to persist is at the root. These roots are all planted in the soil of antisemitism, racism, sexism, islamophobia, homophobia, ageism, and white supremacy.

It saddens me to say the ground in which these roots are planted is as fertile today as ever. As antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate are on the rise, I cannot overstate how necessary it is that young people are empowered to face unfiltered histories head-on using intellect, empathy, and ethics. As we consume our daily news feeds, we are witnessing the impact of what happens when our fellow citizens, especially institutional and communal leaders, do not effectively discern between debate and hate, advocacy and assault, and are unwilling to act decisively on their moral convictions. Contributing factors to the aforementioned realities include a decades-long deprioritization of history and civics in K-12 education; present-day political assaults on what parts of history teachers are allowed to teach; and the evaporation of civil discourse among partisan leaders. 

It is human to want to look away from the most menacing moments of our past, but the cost is too great when we do. We would wonder endlessly why genocide happens and, more importantly, we won’t know how to prevent it. Facing History & Ourselves’ founder, Margot Stern Strom, believed that young people are capable of grappling with difficult moments in history, and for nearly five decades millions of young people in classrooms where Facing History & Ourselves is taught have proven this to be true. To see a way forward, we must face history.