Last month, the results of the “First-Ever 50-State Survey on Holocaust Knowledge of American Millennials and Gen Z” were released. These results were shocking, as they found that 48% of respondents couldn’t name one concentration camp or ghetto that existed during World War II. Furthermore, respondents were unable to identify that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. 

Photo of students visiting Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of: 972mag.com

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Collectively, Americans have a particular idea of what constitutes genocide. Notions of the Holocaust, Cambodia, or Rwanda are generally what come to mind. Almost universally they have two things in common; they are tied to events that happen abroad, and they involve killing on a massive scale. This clear notion of what constitutes genocide can be traced back to the legal definition of genocide, found in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

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From Minneapolis to Germany to Kenya to Japan, people are crying out “I can’t breathe.” Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 people all across the globe have taken to the streets in protest to support Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although the Black liberation struggle has been ongoing for centuries, activists seem to think that this moment may be different.

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The recent protests in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in our own Minneapolis, coupled with the spread of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the globe, have sparked a much-needed conversation within the field of Genocide Studies. The BLM movement calls for the end of anti-Black racism in the United States (and around the globe), and the movement has shined a light on an American legacy of systemic racism — or racism that is ingrained within our social, cultural, and political institutions.

Photo of the George Floyd Memorial

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Meyer Weinshel is a PhD candidate from the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. He received his BA from Macalester College and MA from the University of Minnesota. His research and teaching interests include German Jewish literature and culture, modern Yiddish literature and culture, and translation studies. He is completing his dissertation, “Dos eygne Daytshland: Anthologizing Jewish Multilingualism in and beyond the Habsburg Empire.” The project traces the ways German-language poetry in Yiddish translation shaped modern Jewish cultural developments in/beyond Central Europe. He studied Yiddish at YIVO’s Uriel Weinreich Summer Program (2015, 2017) and at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute (2016). In 2018-19, He has also completed research in Jerusalem at the National Library of Israel and began study modern Hebrew. 

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“Students don’t live in dormitories and the university exerts no control over a student’s private life.”
Hermann Weyl (German mathematician and philosopher, 1885-1955)

Hermann Weyl left Germany in 1933 to join his friend and colleague Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. During his time at Princeton he not only taught theoretical physics; he also lectured on European history and civilization. Here is what else he had to say about student life in Germany before the Nazis took over:

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In August 1862, Minnesota erupted in unprecedented violence. The Dakota, a people that had been confined to two strips of land along the Minnesota River Valley through a series of treaties, began attacking white settlements in the region. Within days, New Ulm had been almost completely burned down and an American Army outpost had been besieged. Just as quickly as the fighting began, it was over; Lincoln, in the midst of leading the Union through the American Civil War, sent Federal troops into Minnesota to put down the uprising. Retaliation was swift and brutal: women, children, and elderly Dakota were sent to an internment camp below Fort Snelling while almost 400  men were tried by a hasty military tribunal for crimes committed during the war. Ultimately 38 were hanged before the end of 1862 in Mankato. All Dakota would be removed from the state in 1863. 

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As a PhD candidate in the Sociology department, I have spent several years studying post-genocide reconstruction. I am constantly working to better understand how countries with legacies of large-scale political violence reconcile and rebuild. But when I am not in the library or my office grappling with these concepts, I am on the mats of Minnesota Top Team (MTT) grappling with my teammates. For the last two years, I have spent my free time learning the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). 

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“This is a God-given signal! If this fire, as I believe, turns out to be the handiwork of Communists, then there is nothing that shall stop us now crushing out the murder pest with an iron fist.” So allegedly expressed Adolf Hitler to Sefton Delmer, British journalist and Berlin correspondent for the Daily Express, one day after arsonists razed the Reichstag, Germany’s federal parliament building, on 27 February 1933.

Though he had yet to complete his first full month as chancellor in the still functioning Weimar Republic, Hitler seized upon the crisis for his own political gain. The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi Party’s official newspaper, propagated the false allegation that communists were planning to overthrow the legally-appointed government.

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Yes, you can. And you should. After all, America is the country that lets you return a used toaster when the shade of brown it puts on your bread doesn’t match the color of your kitchen wallpaper — no questions asked. I don’t think the Founding Fathers would mind if we returned some of the things that made sense 250 years ago but no longer do. They’d of course be surprised and probably a little flattered to see that their Constitution is still up and running while countries in the Old World have had multiple system changes, revolts, and constitutional do-overs in the meantime. But then, after a second glance, they’d be scratching their wigged heads over our attempts to base 21st-century gun laws on an amendment that uses 18th-century grammar and a fuzzy syntax that has led to wildly different interpretations. I am sure they’d take the 2nd Amendment back and give us something brand new that’s a better fit. After all, they were bold innovators who resisted dogma, had a secular worldview and would shudder at the notion of calling a political document “sacred.” And besides, what’s the point of originalism if nobody wears wigs anymore?

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