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Educator challenges people to risk, speak up
and speak out when values are in danger

Addressing those gathered for the 2012 Yom Hashoah commemoration of the Holocaust at Temple Beth Shalom, John Roth, a Holocaust educator who has retired to Winthrop, Wash., challenged people to risk to speak up and speak out when values are in danger.

John Roth
John Roth

“The Holocaust assaulted all things that humans hold dear.  Nothing is guaranteed in life, but nothing is greater than defending values and people when they are endangered,” he said.

Recognizing that it’s not easy to study the Holocaust or other dark parts of history, he pointed out that knowing about it changes lives so people are aware they need to help other people, and speak up when harmful actions take place.

“When the Holocaust targeted particular people, the preciousness of all life, qualities of good and of God were assaulted,” John said.

“We need to remember that there were people who risked everything to help others rather than be perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders or victims,” he said.  “Even small deeds can be life-saving.  We can take nothing good for granted.  The Holocaust swept all good things away.”

John recently retired as professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and as director of its Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights.

He said that part of the meaning of the Holocaust this year is to remember that on April 19—the day of the 2012 observance—in 1943 was the beginning of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, even though the Jews there were outnumbered three to one and had only handguns and Molotov cocktails to use as weapons against tanks and a full arsenal.

“The Warsaw uprising was an important example of Jewish resistance defying the odds,” he said.

Opening the Yom Hashoah commemoration, Temple Beth Shalom president Pam Silverstein said that genocide prevention does not happen without Holocaust education, so organizers of the service invited middle school and high school students to write essays as letters to their principals urging Holocaust studies in their schools.

Spokane Mayor David Condon called for vigilance against hatred, persecution and tyranny, and reflection on the Holocaust calling for rededication to individual freedom in a just society.

Speaking for Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, Sheila Collins of her Spokane office said that “the lessons of the Holocaust are powerful” and call people to “speak out against intolerance” wherever it occurs across the globe.

Joel Lassman, son of Holocaust survivor Eva Lassman, expressed gratitude for renaming the essay contest the Eva Lassman Memorial Creative Writing Contest.  He said the submission of 111 essays in 2012 “justifies the years my mother worked to educate people” that “hate is a disease that turns people into horrible people.”

He pointed out that it’s easier to hate than to do the hard work of finding out about people who are different and judging them based on their merit and character.

“Beliefs about people in a group or family are hard to break,” Joel said.  “The heart of racism is fear.  To minimize fear, people seek to feel superior, and make others seem inferior or even make them the cause of their problems.  How can we break this cruel cycle?  We can’t do it by sitting by and doing nothing.

“We must educate and inform people as my mother did for 25 years,” he said.  “We must focus on teaching children values so they are tolerant and respectful.”

He introduced the essay contest winners:  Molly Carpenter, third place, and Sydney Helman, second, of Northwood Middle School, and Anna Arbanas, first place, from Chase Middle School; Ashley Griechen, third, and Rachel Wright, second, from Gonzaga Preparatory High School, and Emma Bortz, first, of Mead High.

Anna and Emma read their essays, which are published online at

Anna called for the need to learn from mistakes and to learn what discrimination can do to people.  She proposed having an annual Holocaust Day devoted to educating students.

Emma wrote about how easy it is for minds to be led astray and the need to understand how the Nazi regime used propaganda to dehumanize Jews and make them and other targeted groups scapegoats for Germany’s problems in the 1930s.  She challenged Holocaust deniers and the continuation of genocides in the world, pointing out that the way to stop genocides is to increase knowledge around the world about genocide and the Holocaust.

Responding to their essays and offering his thoughts on Holocaust education, John lauded the students for writing essays encouraging their schools to teach about the Holocaust, pointing out that Nazis had used all subjects taught in schools to create a culture of genocide.

“We need to educate young people today to challenge human rights abuses and encourage resistance,” John said, pointing out that the meaning of the Holocaust changes when everything students can learn about it comes from history books.

“Events lose their immediacy,” he said.  “The time will come when no one living will have experienced it.”

John cautioned people not to forget, challenging efforts to deny, minimize or distort the Holocaust.

“Without sound education, the dangers of denial and distortion may gain traction,” he said.

“We must stand in solidarity, so the memory continues, education advances and we will protest when life is disrespected,” John said.  “We must live in ways that will make a difference.”

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