When a Holocaust Survivor Came to Class

Brett Arakawa '17 felt anger, sympathy, and hope after meeting genocide survivors

By BRETT ARAKAWA '17, USF NEWS Posted Mon, 11/27/2017 - 14:56

“The soldier burst in and grabbed my mother and threw her to the floor. On a table near the door, we had a large kitchen knife. I was afraid he would shoot my mother, so I backed up to the table and picked up the knife and held it behind my back.” 

That's how 86-year-old Leon Rajninger, a Holocaust survivor from Romania who spoke to my Holocaust and Genocide class in September, recounted an experience from living in a ghetto. Luckily, the soldier released his mother, and Rajninger, who was 8 when WWII started, slipped the knife back onto the table, unseen. Listening to, meeting, and asking Rajninger questions about the Holocaust and how his family escaped death at the hands of Nazis brought the history home to me in a personal way that reading about it hadn't.

I learned that Rajninger and his family spent three years in the Djurin ghetto, surviving starvation and typhus. In the spring of 1944, they were liberated by the Soviet Army. They came to the U.S. in 1951.

Face-to-face with survivors

Rajninger was one of several speakers who visited my class. Others included Wilita Sanguma MA ’12, a Congolese genocide survivor, and Meron Semedar MA ’17, an Eritrean refugee who escaped a brutal dictatorship. The Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice class, offered through theology and religious studies, covers genocides and mass killings from the Armenian genocide during WWI to today’s Rohingya ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The class teaches students the patterns of genocide and context within history — how regimes like the Nazi Party and Khmer Rouge were able to take control. 

The course is taught by Rabbi Lee Bycel, an internationally recognized humanitarian who specializes in genocide and refugee advocacy. He's led relief trips to Chad, Kenya, Rwanda, and the Republic of South Sudan as an adviser with International Medical Corps., and personally raised $2.5 million to help with refugees’ medical needs. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C. Currently, Bycel is writing the personal stories of 12 refugees for an upcoming book. 

“Many students take this course because they’re troubled by the world we live in, and want to understand both the nature of evil and goodness that emerges from people throughout history,” Bycel says. 

How I was humbled

For me, the class has touched emotions of anger, sympathy, and hope; it's raised questions about the social psychology of people that allowed Nazism to thrive in Germany and the “us vs. them” mentality in the Hutu-Tutsi Rwandan genocide. The course's in-person speakers are a powerful way to teach a subject far removed from my experiences.

But more than just an interesting class, Holocaust and Genocide was a humbling one. In addition to shedding light on the horrors that humans are capable of, the survivors showed the personal wellspring within each of us: the power of hope that gave a typhus-stricken Rajninger the strength to survive five days in a morgue and Sanguma the strength to escape the Congo. They’ve shared their darkest memories with strangers, in an effort to ensure that I and other students  aren’t ignorant — or worse, in denial — of our past.

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