This summer, I left my home in Glasgow, Kentucky, to spend a month in Poland. I studied human rights with Humanity in Action, a non-profit dedicated to human rights advocacy. A core theme was learning how we can build more inclusive societies, a topic that seems especially relevant in America, in this political moment.
We learned that what determines national identity is elusive. In America, our national identity is, theoretically, inclusive of people across ethnic divisions, defined by our commitment to liberty and justice for all. In Europe, national identity tends to emphasize ethnic purity as a marker for belonging. At times, this concept of nationality has had disastrous results.
One of the worst genocides in world history occurred largely in Poland. When we studied the Holocaust, we saw how marginalization of Polish Jews, as the quintessential “other” in Polish society, happened slowly, not overnight. When the Nazis segregated Polish Jews from the rest of Warsaw, anti-Semitism was already widespread, leaving Jews to fend for themselves in a society that was largely indifferent to their plight. Thus, segregation, relocation and extermination became the final solution to the “Jewish question.”
We visited the Treblinka death camp, one of the most haunting places I’ve ever visited. In the middle of a thick forest, 800,000 humans with real emotions and life stories were brutally and systematically murdered and cremated by other humans with real emotions and life stories. If not for a stone memorial, the perpetrators would have erased any evidence of wrongdoing. These murders were shrouded in secrecy while the world closed its ears to the suffering of those who perished in that forest.
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The monument also featured two words as a plea to remember both those who perished and those who chose indifference: “Never again.” Unfortunately, since then, the human rights of those deemed “other” have been consistently violated across the world. Here, we have seen the imprisonment of Japanese-American families, the fearful backlash toward Hispanic immigration, the terror experienced by Muslim Americans since 9/11, continued legal discrimination against LGBTQ people, and the disproportionate devastation wreaked on people of color by our criminal justice system.
Today, in Warsaw, one still sees graffiti that reads, “Kill Muslims,” or compares LGBTQ people to animals. And while I love my beautiful home state, one wouldn’t have to travel far to find those viewpoints here in Kentucky. We’ve seen this before, and the takeaway is clear: when we normalize the exclusion of an entire group, our basic humanity begins to erode.
How can we build communities around a shared identity that transcends our outward differences? How can we confront injustice in our own corner of the world rather than look the other way when it doesn’t seem to affect us personally? How can we truly heed the warning written at Treblinka?
There aren’t easy answers. But we know that we must start by listening to those whose experience is different from our own. And as we learn about injustice, get off the sidelines. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” said South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
We have a lot of work to do, and during this tumultuous period in our nation’s history, rays of hope are difficult to come by. But if we can listen to one another and make an active choice to stand up for justice, perhaps one day we will be a world that looks back on the madness of the past and says, with sincerity, “Never again.”
Jay Todd Richey is a recent graduate of Western Kentucky University, where he was student body president and student regent. This fall, he will study human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.