Amos N. Guiora: Powerful questions about the unthinkable from young minds

(Peter Dejong | AP)The monument Levenslicht, or Light of Life, by artist Daan Roosegaarde, consisting of 104,000 light-emitting stones for the number of Dutch Holocaust victims is unveiled in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, to mark the 75th anniversary, later this month, of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.

On Jan. 9, I had the immense privilege to address 800 7th and 9th graders at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville. I had been invited by their teacher, Ms. Amy Burgon-Hill, to speak about the bystander in the Holocaust. The basis for the invitation was my book, “The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust.”

Since the book’s release in March 2017, I have given a number of book talks in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Israel. I have spoken to audiences in a wide array of forums and venues. However, as many times as I have previously spoken about and been interviewed about the book, nothing prepared me for the reception I experienced at EJHS.

While Ms. Burgon-Hill had graciously forwarded me questions the students prepared in advance of the talk, from the first moment of the address it was clear that this event would be different. There was a level of intensity on the students’ faces as I spoke; a degree of attentiveness beyond any prior audience, regardless of age or format. That intensity and engagement carried over to the question-and-answer period.

One of the wonderful aspects of engaging with young people is their willingness, perhaps reflecting eager innocence or young courage, to explore beyond conventional boundaries. That powerful and compelling confluence between innocence and exploration made the 90 minutes electric.

Talking about the Holocaust at any time is both crucial and sobering; discussing my parents’ Holocaust experiences is simultaneously important and painful. No matter how many times I speak of their travails, there are always intense feelings of sadness at their suffering and awe at what they survived.

However, what made the talk at EJHS so different, and so ultimately compelling, were the questions I was asked. The 7th and 9th graders pushed me in ways that no other audience had. The questions noted below are but a representative of what I was asked.

For example, I have never been asked how I think I would have acted if I had personally witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust. This bold question zeroed in on the complicated existential dilemma: “What would I do?” The correct answer is the honest answer I gave the EJHS students, “I have no idea.”

I was asked whether my paternal grandparents – both murdered in Auschwitz – would have helped me write the book. While I can’t know the actual answer because they were killed long before I was born, this is also an exceptionally insightful question which plumbed the depths of both immediate family dynamics and generic human dispositions.

A third student asked where the hardest and most important place to give my book talk has been. The direct answer, “Germany,” was easy. But the sub-text of this question is much deeper, it is a subtle inquiry into how different audiences impact a talk and what those differences are. It was an insightful broadening of focus from the topic at hand to the topic in its social context.

A fourth student asked whether I was aware of other genocides taking place today. Answer: “Tragically, yes.” But beyond just a search for information, the question was a courageous, clear-eyed effort to understand today’s world and a realization that many of the lessons of the Holocaust remain in the dustbin of history, thus reflecting humanity’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to learn from previous horrors.

What to make of all this? Beyond the thoughtful and engaged questions reflecting a solid understanding of the Holocaust, there was genuine attempt to connect the events of 1933-1945 to contemporary circumstances.

This is admirable from an intellectual perspective and reflective of a determined pedagogy, but it goes beyond that. It suggests a mature understanding that the world of today – shortly to be the world of these very students – is fraught with dangers born of hatred, fear, selfishness and greed.

In exploring these themes, the students turned the tables by asking me to consider how would I conduct myself, from whom could I expect assistance, where is the message most relevant, and have we learned anything?

These questions demand our attention both because they weighed heavily on the minds of 800 junior high students, and because they illuminate our as-yet uncompleted responsibilities to improve the world and advance civilization. The manner in which the students asked the questions was impressive in its own right, but the context of their inquiries is something we all should carefully heed.

The depth of their thinking and the extent of their curiosity gives significant cause for hope during this time of continued strife, hatred, divisiveness and anger.

Amos Guiora

Amos N. Guiora, J.D., Ph.D., is a professor of law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.