Holocaust survivor Bill Behr shares his story.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the What You Do Matters leadership summit, held by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) at the Field Museum in Chicago. The summit aimed to bring together student leaders from the Chicago area to discuss ways we can combat hatred in our communities. This idea was centered around USHMM’s exhibit on Nazi propaganda, which was temporarily installed at the Field Museum.
This was a unique experience on many levels. Contemplating my research topic through a modern lens gave me a new perspective on how we view and respond to images and messages in the media. Bob Behr, a Berlin-born survivor of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, told us how propaganda aimed to visually define the “other” in the Jews, and how this was believed by an acquaintance who claimed that if it is published in a newspaper, it must be true. It is easy to label that as ignorant and question, “how could ordinary citizens not see the total falsity in such reports?” However, with the instant nature of news in the modern era, news can often go unfiltered, as explained by Bill Adair, founder of PolitiFact. We are just as reliant upon, and susceptible to, visual messages as Behr’s acquaintance in 1930s Berlin. This has led me to a new question – How might have these images and newspaper reports that I am studying been received by the German public?
“Do I really see what I believe, or believe what I see?” questioned Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the genocide. Wilkens, who currently travels across the country and globe telling his story with his organization “World Outside My Shoes” reflected upon his experiences, from the decision to stay in a country in total chaos, to his feeling of responsibility to do so, and the dehumanizing propaganda broadcasted across Rwanda on “hate radio.” This particular quote resonated with me – to what extent to we challenge ourselves to think critically and independently, and not accept what we view and what we read for face value?
Apart from experiencing some amazing stories and meeting passionate, world-changing individuals, this summit inspired some new questions in my own research, as well as my own response to visual media.