Manny Mandel came to Colgate, a place, “[he’d] never been to before but whose product [he] uses” (rimshot), to tell a room of Colgate students and faculty his life experience surrounding the Holocaust. Manny works at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., so he’s no stranger to sharing his history and the way in which he does so is incredibly purposeful. While I can never put into words the experience of listening to a Holocaust survivor speak, the lessons he shared with the few of us who were able to attend are lessons that everyone needs to know, and I know Manny would be ashamed if I, as a student of history, did not do my part to share them.
Manny kept the audience on their toes by constantly quizzing us on important events, dates, and people pertaining to the Holocaust. I was surprised by this tactic as I’d entered the room expecting him to lecture us instead of educating us. Turns out I was completely wrong.
At the end of his talk, Manny emphasized that no Holocaust survivor tells a story; they tell a history. This may be a matter of semantics, but Manny’s point was that what happened was real and that what happened should be studied.
I’m a History major at Colgate, and I’m actually taking a class called "War and Holocaust in Europe" next semester, but Manny meant that everyone should be a student of history. One girl asked him what our generation could do in light of the fact that in the not so distant future all Holocaust survivors will have passed away and we will no longer be able to access their experiences first-hand. Manny’s response was to paraphrase George Santayana’s quote that, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” He encouraged us - all of us - to study history of not only the Holocaust but of all time periods so we can understand how people have treated or mistreated people in the past and then strive to do better.
He revisited this point in his closing words to us, saying that we should, “Go and learn. Go study.” He said that he knew that none of us knew all that we could about the Holocaust, which meant that none of us knew enough about it. He’s right. Manny’s history took place in the Bergen-Belsen labor camp, and he was actually there at the same time as Anne Frank, but his history also covered ground that was much more unfamiliar. His history began much earlier in Hungary suffering through pogroms and air raids. His history came to a close by exploring the deal that got him out of his hostage situation and that enabled high-ranking Nazis to retire in South America. We all know about the Holocaust and the six million lives lost and that Hitler was evil, but there’s so much more to know, and those details make the Holocaust much more generalizable as something to avoid repeating. We may not be on the verge of a fascist genocide, but discrimination is by no means absent from our society, and the commentary on all aspects of the Holocaust can shed light on how we should treat all people all the time.
As a History major this struck me because it reminded me of the importance of the study of history. I’m in a class called "Introduction to the Modern Middle East" and we were recently studying early Zionism and the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the interwar period and through World War II. As a result, we touched upon the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a subject I’ve always been fascinated by, but for this class, I lost that intellectual curiosity and motivation and was focused on learning what I needed to learn for my upcoming quizzes. Manny reminded me that the true test for students of history is to apply what they learn to make sense of the modern world and navigate it in a way that is better than perhaps our ancestors did.
Manny is 81 years old and still kicking. It brings me hope to think of all the lives he’ll touch during the rest of the time the world is privileged enough to have him. And after that, I hope that as a student of history who hopes to teach future students of history that I can do so with an eye towards people treating people better.