I spent the past three days in a lecture theatre at the University of Victoria attending the “Global Connections: Critical Holocaust Education in a Time of Transition” Conference.

The Conference gathered roughly 100 scholars, activists, educators, poets, musicians, Holocaust survivors, and members of the general public from across Canada, throughout the US, and many European countries including: Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Poland.

We spent the three days perched on the edge of a dark abyss, peering into the worst violence, inhumanity, injustice, and tragedy human beings are capable of committing. Predictably, given the subject matter of the Conference, the emotional pressure was unrelenting.

There were many chilling statements uttered over our time together. But perhaps the most chilling thing I heard came from Smith College in North Hampton, MA. On Tuesday, commenting on her experience studying the Holocaust with undergraduate university students, Darcy Buerkle Associate Professor of History said,

My students are studying in an increasingly corporatized environment. And, in my experience over the past five years, I find them increasingly loathe to engage in their own vulnerability. They are much more inclined to identify with the perpetrators than with the victims.

I do not have any way of assessing this assessment of undergraduate university students to Holocaust studies. But, if Dr. Buerle’s assessment is accurate and students are indeed “increasingly loathe to engage in their own vulnerability,” we would appear to be entering an era in which it is going to be increasingly difficult to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.

Holocaust ChildrenHow do you hear the voice of Robbie Wasiman tell of watching his beloved older brother loaded onto a truck in Buchenwald and seeing the truck return empty hours later, without engaging your “own vulnerability”? How do you avoid a broken heart as you look in the eyes of Julius Maslovat telling the story of being thrown over the barbed wire fence as an infant by his mother in a last ditch attempt to save her infant son as she made her way to the gas chamber?

Again and again in our time together the question was asked, “What can we do today to help make it less likely that such horrific events will never be repeated?”

It is perhaps not surprising in a university setting that education was the most commonly offered answer to the question. It was repeatedly suggested that educational institutions bear a burden of responsibility to insure that we do not forget the tragedies of history. Knowledge of our painful past is vital to helping avoid repetition in the future.

But, the lessons of the Holocaust cannot be learned apart from an experience of our own vulnerability. Vulnerability is the ground in which hearts break open. And it is only open softened hearts that have any hope of creating the fruitful ground in which light, compassion, truth, and life might grow in place of darkness, prejudice, deceit, and death.

Dr. Buerkle in her brief comments drew a connection between what she characterized as an increasingly “coporatized” learning environment for her students and their unwillingness to “engage in their own vulnerability.” This connection is profoundly important. The communities we develop shape our ability to learn.

If we are to avoid the errors of the past, it will in part be to the degree that we develop communities that are characterized by peace, respect, gentleness, openness, flexibility, mutual respect, and profound compassion. They will need to be communities in which members are encouraged to “engage in their own vulnerability.”

This is not easy. I am no expert when it comes to vulnerability. As much as anyone, I live in a little castle, struggling to establish a fragile sense of safety behind the protective walls of my defensiveness. But I know that it is behind these walls that the environment of the Holocausts of the future begin to form.

If we hope to create environments of welcome and life, we must risk the practice of letting down the walls and entering into the softness of our own vulnerability. This is the path to learning the lessons of the Holocaust.