Leonard Pitts: Holocaust is a fact, not a belief

(Richard Drew | AP Photo) Portraits of Holocaust survivors are displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage as a vintage German train car, like those used to transport people to Auschwitz and other death camps, is uncovered on tracks outside the museum, in New York, Sunday, March 31, 2019. The train car joins hundreds of artifacts from Auschwitz at the museum for an exhibit entitled "Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away," that opens to the public on May 8.

A man named Josef Buzhminski told this story at the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

It happened on July 27, 1942, at the fence of the Jewish ghetto in Przemysl, Poland. Buzhminski was watching from hiding as an SS man named Kidash seized a Jewish woman and her 18-month-old son. "She held the baby in her arms," Buzhminski said, "and began asking for mercy that she be shot first and leave the baby alive.

"From behind the fence," he continued, "there were Poles who raised their hands ready to catch the baby. She was about to hand the baby over to the Poles. He took the baby from her arms and shot her twice and then took the baby into his hands and tore him as one would tear a rag."

That’s just one story — one wrenching, awful story. There are 6 million more like it — 11 million if you count beyond the Jewish victims.

Understand that and you understand the fury over William Latson. He was the principal of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton who, in April 2018, had a just-revealed email exchange with an unidentified mother about the Holocaust. As first reported in The Palm Beach Post, she had written to ask how that genocide is taught. Latson assured her the school has many Holocaust education activities, but added that they’re not mandatory — “not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs.”

Stunned, the mother pointed out the obvious: The Holocaust is not a "belief." Latson was unmoved, reminding her that "not everyone believes the Holocaust happened," and claiming that he is required to be "politically neutral."

"I can't say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee," he said.

Those words ignited an uproar. And Latson, you will not be heartbroken to learn, is now the ex-principal of Spanish River High.

Which is fine, except that he is less the problem here than just a particularly glaring symptom thereof. Forcing him out does nothing to address the toxic "both-sideism" he represents and that has crept over American education, politics and journalism in recent years.

Sometimes, it's merely disingenuous, an excuse for inaction — like when Republicans pretend they can't be definitive about climate change because there's no scientific consensus. Sometimes, it's fear of the damning word. Like when reporters look at incidents involving nooses, burning crosses or the generous application of the N-word and pronounce them "racially insensitive." And sometimes, it's a misbegotten attempt at even-handedness. Like when Latson evidences such tender regard for the feelings of Holocaust deniers.

It's a fine thing to maintain an open mind. Intellectual flexibility, the ability to see things from the other side, is to be encouraged. But none of that precludes the obligation to make a judgment, to say flatly what is and what is not.

Failure to do that, failure to stand up for the truth, suggests not an open mind but an empty one — and cowardice, to boot. The truth is already under attack from the White House, the Russians, Fox "News" and other forces of weaponized chaos and organized confusion. Will it now be under attack from the schools, too?

We can't allow that. To allow that is to poison the future. And besides, Josef Buzhminski — and millions of other witnesses and victims of atrocity — deserve better. They are beyond our solace. The least we can do is remember their ordeals and speak them without equivocation.

You wouldn't think that's too much to ask.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com