Danvers Holocaust Symposium asks ‘What does the Holocaust have to do with me?’

50th anniversary revival of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ storms the stage
Three swastikas have been found at Danvers public schools since the fall.

by Shelley A. Sackett

DANVERS — Last year, Danvers was in the news, but not for reasons that made its leaders and community members proud. Amid allegations of antisemitism, racism and homophobia in the Danvers High School hockey team, there were complaints about lack of transparency and accountability in the school and police departments. Then, in November, swastikas were discovered at the Holten Richmond Middle School and in December, a swastika was found at Danvers High School.

In response, about 200 people gathered for a “vigil of inclusion” organized by the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and the Danvers Interfaith Partnership. But Danvers officials, especially the School Committee and administration, wanted to go further.

To that end, Danvers Public Schools partnered with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom. The free program began Jan. 6 and includes 39 students and 34 adults.

“We need to continue to work on ensuring our school has a safe and respectful climate and empower all our community members to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions,” Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico said in an email. “This work needs to be done by students, faculty and families.”

Consisting of curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussions, the symposium was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti showing up more frequently in schools and in community settings. Danvers is the fourth symposium (the others were at New England Academy and Duxbury and Newton North High Schools) and the first to be open to the entire community.

“I believe education is our best hope. Opening the symposium to students and adults in Danvers to learn together has been especially powerful,” said Deborah Coltin, who is Lappin Foundation’s executive director and also runs the symposium.

So far, participants couldn’t agree more.

At the beginning of the first session, Coltin posed the open-ended question, “Why are you here?” Many answered that they wanted to make a difference in Danvers and to be on the side of not making light of recent events. “I want to be rebooted in my attitudes,” a student said.

Tess Wallerstein, an 11th grade Jewish student, took comfort in knowing there are “actually people in Danvers who genuinely care about this topic.” She believes a large percentage of people spreading antisemitism either have an incorrect understanding of the Holocaust or are rooted in ignorance. “Symposiums like this could help lots of people gain a better understanding of major issues and could bring community members together in open discussions by connecting young and old,” she said.

Parent Mike Hass wants to help raise the bar on what is acceptable behavior. He also wants his daughter to learn more about the deeper societal issues that led to the Holocaust. “I want her to see and experience that speaking up and taking an active role in society is critical to shaping the world around her,” he said in an email.

Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell believes the program can serve as a framework for additional, admittedly difficult conversations that will help Danvers grow as a community. “More importantly, I hope to learn things I can do in my role as a public official and leader to ensure we properly investigate incidents of antisemitism and help create a culture where hate is not acceptable or tolerated,” he said in an email.

The program included the movie, “The Path to Nazi Genocide,” that uses rare footage to examine the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power in Germany. Intended to provoke reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions, and nations between 1918 and 1945, the film did just that.

Students and adults agreed that seeing video recordings from that era was much more impactful than reading about it in books. “Nothing is left to the imagination. This is a wake-up call,” said a student. “Seeing the sophistication of the Nazis’ approach, the normalization of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the hijacking of tradition – that really scared me,” added an adult.

For Selectman David Mills, Human Rights and Inclusion Committee co-founder, seeing the ease with which ordinary people were drawn into something so horrible disturbed him. “Do we all have that monster lurking just below the surface?” he asked.

Community member Carla King, who learned about the symposium through DanversCARES, has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and attended lectures on the topic. She thought she knew more than many about the Holocaust. After the first session, she realized and appreciated there was much more for her to learn.

She was unnerved to watch the events that led to Hitler’s rise to power. “It was very powerful for me thinking of the current climate in the U.S. and that some of what we see is how it all started,” she said in an email. “Our children need to be educated about what the swastika means. I don’t believe they really understand, and if they did, I don’t think they would be doing what they are doing.”

Mary Wermers, assistant superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Danvers Public Schools, thinks outreach like this symposium can help Danvers. “We need passive bystanders to become upstanders in the community. It is time that we call out biased remarks and/or actions, try to explain why it is hurtful and not stand by and let it happen,” she said in an email.

Dave McKenna, who co-founded the Human Rights and Inclusion Committee in 1993 and is superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, would go one step further. “We need to find a way to reach those who have no interest in learning about these issues and enlighten them as to the cause and effect of divisiveness and how it leads to hatred,” he said in an email. “We still have a long way to go.”

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