In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at more than 9 million. By 1945, the Nazis and their collaborators had murdered 6 million Jews, two-thirds of the European population.
Words alone cannot define the madness that hatred brings.
Photographs – those of walking skeletons, of cattle cars, of hollow-eyed concentration camp prisoners, of mountains of shoes, suitcases and hair; their owners reduced to smoke and ash – tell only part of the story.
It is the voices of the survivors, eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, who must make sense of the senseless. For a quarter century, that has been the goal of Jacksonville State University’s annual Holocaust Remembrance, which will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stone Center Theater.
It’s a lesson that Alexandra Mosely has taken to heart. Mosely has been studying the Holocaust and writing a research paper as part of a Freshman Honors Comprehension class taught by JSU English professor Steve Whitton.
“I had never looked at the Holocaust from the perspective of each and every individual,” she said. “Instead, I always viewed it as the mass genocide of millions of innocent Jews, as well as Slavs, gypsies and various other groups. I always looked upon images of the Holocaust and felt my heart break at the sight of the unidentifiable corpses – anonymous people in the sense that after they had entered the camp, they were just a number.”
The remembrance personalizes the Holocaust for students, says Joe Delap, a professor of foreign language, who has taught a literary study of the Holocaust at JSU for five years.
“For them to meet these survivors, who are steadily dwindling in number, is something that must be taken advantage of,” he said. “Because we’re losing so many of these survivors, eventually we must carry on that legacy.”
This year, the message of vigilance will be delivered by Herbert Kohn.
Kohn was 6 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler rose to power. In November 1938, Nazi stormtroopers arrested Herbert’s father, Leo, who was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. When Leo returned three weeks later, his hair had turned white from the torture he received at the hands of the Nazis.
Though Leo Kohn and his family eventually escaped from Germany, others were not so fortunate. Herbert’s grandfather, Friedrich Simon, died in a Nazi cattle car on the way to Minsk, while other family members were also murdered.
Today, Herbert Kohn lives in Atlanta with is second wife, Frances. Together, they have five children and 11 grandchildren, and Kohn has learned to let go of his anger.
“Hatred, revenge and retaliation don’t do any good, so I’m trying to get them out of my vocabulary,” he said in an interview with Atlanta’s Breman Museum. “We certainly cannot change the past, but we can learn from it.”
For Makenzie Sherrell, who is also in JSU’s freshman honors class, such lessons carry a heavy responsibility.
“If I were able to tell a Holocaust survivor one thing, it would be, ‘Thank you,’” she said. “Thank you for your resiliency but most of all thank you for sharing your experience with my generation … by listening to survivors, my generation can learn how to prevent something like it from happening ever again.”