There is an amazing scene in the 2001 film, The Believer, where Ryan Gosling, playing a Jewish neo-Nazi, is sent with his Nazi mates for re-education.
They meet with Shoah survivors and hear their devastating personal stories. Some Nazis retort with typical Holocaust denial tropes, including the claim that nowhere near six million died.
At this point Gosling’s character says something astonishing: if Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why is he a hero? If he only killed a few hundred thousand, he’s a putz.
It has been reported recently that Chelsea Football club is considering dealing with racist football fans by sending them on trips to Auschwitz.
My gut reaction is to applaud the move. We need more people who understand that anger and hatred of the other, especially mass crowd-induced racism, can lead to a society that allows Auschwitz to exist.
Education is key and I would hope that, for as long as it is possible, survivors would accompany these trips, because it is in hearing the moving, personal stories of the horrors of the Second World War that it becomes real.
This won’t be an option for much longer and we all owe a huge debt to those who have spent years willing to relive and retell such trauma.
But in a world of “fake media”, where even the facts of the Holocaust are so regularly belittled and questioned, can we in good conscience submit a survivor to telling their truth to a committed racist who would doubt, challenge – or worse – exonerate the actions of the Nazis?
Perhaps all we can do is remain hopeful that through dialogue and education, an encounter with difference, and the opportunity to discover the humanity of those we may mindlessly hate, we can move people beyond their stereotyping, anger and vilification.
The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) has taken more than 34,000 schoolchildren and teachers on this kind of trip since 1999.
They ensure, however, that it isn’t just a trip to Auschwitz, but a fully rounded educational experience that helps participants understand the long-term effects when racism and xenophobia become acceptable.
I hope for racist football fans this education isn’t coming too late and that for HET their incredibly powerful work can encompass hundreds of thousands more students each year so that we don’t reach the point of needing to re-educate them later.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is Reform Judaism’s community educator
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