A Better Future Demands We Openly Teach the Past

While meeting recently with a friend who is an outstanding Holocaust educator based in Florida, I was informed that because of the recent laws passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, public school teachers who teach the Holocaust are worried. Apparently, they feel that they are not allowed to say anything negative about state or national governments.

Public school teachers in Florida who teach the Holocaust are worried. Here’s why:

This means that they are afraid to talk about America turning away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in 1939 on the ship St. Louis.

The St. Louis left Germany in May 1939 with 937 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees, for Cuba. Most of the refugees had immigration documents to the USA for 1940. The passengers on the ship were not allowed to enter Cuba. After being turned away from Cuba, the ship was not allowed to dock in the US. The refugees were turned away from the safety of the shores of the United States. The ship sailed back to Europe wherein it unloaded its “cargo.” The passengers were admitted to France, England, Belgium and the Netherlands. The majority were later murdered by the Nazis after the Nazis conquered Western Europe.

By June 1944, the Roosevelt administration was well aware that thousands of Jews were being murdered at Auschwitz. Two prisoners had escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and their eyewitness account reached FDR’s desk.  In the summer of 1944, more than 12,000 people were being murdered every day at the Auschwitz Nazi Death Camp. Despite repeated requests to do so, the Roosevelt administration refused to bomb the tracks or the bridges on the way to Auschwitz. In November 1944, in a letter from John McCloy in the Department of War to John Pehle of the War Refugee Board, McCloy claimed that bombing Auschwitz was beyond the capability of the US Air Force. This turned out to be an outright lie – similar bombings had been taking place on industrial facilities in the area since May 1944! One target, which was successfully bombed, was only a mere six kilometers from the gas chambers of Auschwitz!

Certainly, these two events do not put either the Roosevelt Administration in particular or the US government in general in a good light. From my point of view, what occurred in these two events represents a moral failure of the United States government. This story needs to be told and taught so as to prevent other moral failures in the future.

And yet, teachers in Florida are afraid to teach the history of these two events!

Apparently, a teacher who criticizes the government can lose his or her license and in extreme cases, can be charged with a felony.

This is a result of the 2022 Act called the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act” which was signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Perhaps even worse, more than 350 books have been banned in Florida since last year.

Included among the books which have been banned in certain Florida school districts is “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation” by Ari Folman. (Most readers may not be aware nor recall that in the 1990’s, certain counties in Florida actually banned the “Diary of Anne Frank” because within it, Anne discussed the first time that she menstruated. The district allowed students to read the Broadway script instead!)

At present, other states have banned the graphic novel “The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale” by Art Spiegelman. The book is based upon interviews by Spiegelman of his father who was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor.

Again, perhaps history has something to teach us here. On May 10, 1933, a mere three-plus months after they came to power, Nazis began to burn banned books throughout the country. More than a century earlier in 1823 the German romantic poet, Heinrich Heine wrote: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Now I am not suggesting that anyone in Florida is as horrible as the Nazis.

Rather, I am trying to point out the potentially devastating consequences that such actions have had in history.

Friends, these tendencies in our culture are very disturbing and are really alarming to me as one who has taught teens the history of the Nazi Holocaust for more than forty years.

Please do not misinterpret my message. I am a patriotic American and I am eternally grateful to the United States for defeating the Nazis. Had they not been defeated, I would not be here! My father and father-in-law served in the Armed Forces in World War II. Two of my cousins were American soldiers who died in Europe defending freedom.

The philosopher George Santayana once wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

These words challenge us to learn about and critically examine the failures of the American government concerning the St. Louis incident and the non-bombing of the bridges and tracks leading to Auschwitz.

Only when we truthfully teach what happened in the past can we hope to create a better future for all!

About the Author
Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has served on the Commission of Social Action for Reform Judaism. He has been recognized as one of the “50 Voices for Justice” by the URJ and by the Forward Magazine as one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis.” In March 2015, he organized the National Jewish commemoration in Selma of the 50th Anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March.