Holocaust Remembrance: A Special Screening of ‘There Was Once’

U.S. Department of State - Washington, D.C.

The horrors of the Holocaust continue to reverberate some 70 years later. As I reflect on all the lives lost and others irreparably changed, I know the story has to be told again and again. As new generations arise, they, too, need to understand what happens when religious intolerance is allowed to breed unchallenged and unchecked. All too clearly, we saw what transpired when the world looked the other way…and even colluded…when Hitler launched his “final solution” against the Jews and others he deemed “Lebensunwertes Leben” (life unworthy of life). Afterwards, governments and citizens had to grapple with how to justify their actions or inaction. Most assuredly, we in the United States were not exempt.

Many excellent documentaries and movies have been devoted to the Holocaust, exploring the history the world would rather forget. I recently had the opportunity watch There Was Once, a new documentary on the Holocaust that looks back at the past through contemporary lenses. This compelling story struck me anew with the importance of personal responsibility in the face of religious intolerance. It is a message that needs repeating.

On January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world recalled and remembered the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a time to consider the price of standing idly by when bigotry and hatred is given free rein. In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I hosted a screening of There Was Once at the Department of State for students, civil society, and government colleagues on January 30. Directed by Gabor Kalman, the documentary tells the story of a Hungarian teacher who discovers the Jewish community of Kalocsa, Hungary, which once was so vibrant, but disappeared in the Holocaust. Gyöngyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in Kalocsa, engages her students as she teaches tolerance and fights prejudice in the face of an emerging cultural and political right-wing reality in Hungary.

How many times do you have the opportunity to discuss a noteworthy film with both the director and the protagonist? Such was the case today, when Gabor Kalman joined us in person and Gyöngyi Mago virtually linked up from Budapest for a question and answer session immediately following the screening.

It takes government and civil society joining forces to speak up and speak out whenever and wherever anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance arise. It takes people of faith crossing religious divides to stand firm for those of differing beliefs. It takes a concerted will of the government and the people to challenge the “new anti-Semitism.” For these reasons, we have to teach the Holocaust, with the emphasis on personal responsibility. By examining what happened…and happens…when governments endorse and encourage anti-Semitism, we grasp the importance of refusing to hide behind the actions of others as an excuse for personal inaction.

I welcome your thoughts.

- Cross posted from DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State

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