The Ostrander Auditorium was packed to the brim on Tuesday afternoon for a presentation by Fred Amram. Amram is Holocaust survivor and storyteller who has traveled to numerous universities to recount his experiences under the Nazi rule.
Amram lost many family members, including his young cousin, then not even four years old, to the death camps. He himself came to the US as a child, in 1939.
In his presentation, Amram sought to change how students perceive the Holocaust. He noted that much of the focus in discussions about the Holocaust tend to focus on the death camps. “When you hear about the Holocaust, you tend to talk about Auschwitz.”
While that is an absolutely vital part, Amram said that such a focus can obscure how Germany got to that point, with all of the little steps taken by the German government, one by one, to segregate, dehumanize, and eventually kill the Jewish people living under their rule.
“We don’t immediately come to Auschwitz,” Amram said. Instead, the first stages of the Holocaust had been economic and social. The Nazis encouraged the boycott of Jewish businesses and institutions to disenfranchise them economically. Political disenfranchisement was achieved with the stripping of citizenship.
Amram stressed the importance of segregation in setting the stage for later atrocities. “Separation, that’s how every genocide begins.”
The picture of the Holocaust that Amram presented was not a dramatic, single event, but a series of insidious steps towards the eventual hell scapes of Auschwitz and the other death camps.
At first, Jewish people weren’t allowed to use the same benches at the park. Then, they weren’t allowed to use the park at all. First, they were segregated on the trolley. Then, they couldn’t even use the trolley. Right after right, stripped away, systematically, slowly, methodically, and deliberately.
“Could something like that happen in the US?” Amram asked the crowd. He turned and moved to the next slide in the presentation: a picture of a segregated water fountain in the United States. “When I came to the US, this is what I saw,” he told the crowd.
But the Holocaust, according to Amram, could have been prevented, and should have been prevented. “There was no reason why the stop couldn’t have happened earlier,” he said. Comparing Nazi Germany to the US, he said “Here, folks protested, folks said no, we won’t allow this, and today we sit in the same waiting room.” No such thing happened in Germany.
Amram encouraged the audience not to be bystanders, but upstanders. “What you do matters,” he said, noting that if people had protested against what was happening to the Jewish people en masse, in a way akin to the Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust might well not have happened, and Hitler might have been overthrown. By the time that the Allies put an end to the Nazi regime, it was too late; six million had died.
“The takeaway is a call to action,” Amram said in his closing statements. “What I ask is that you not be bystanders, but that you be upstanders.”
The Transfer of Memory photography exhibit, which depicts survivors of the Holocaust in the state of Minnesota, is located in the Centennial Student Union Art Gallery, and will be there from October 8 to October 23.