As part of the Roger Smith Foundation of Pittsburgh, and the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania in both Mercer and Lawrence counties, along with the Jewish Cultural Center in Youngstown, Cole has been educating students who he said “thought the Holocaust was like the Civil War. Something bad that happened a long time ago, but they didn’t really know what it was about.”
Monday marks the “Day of Remembrance” for the Holocaust, the date chosen because it was the day the Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland was liberated in 1945. The term Holocaust, used to describe the killing of more than 6 million Jews from 1939 to 1945, was coined in the 1960s, Cole said. Holocaust is a Greek word, meaning a fire, from which nothing is left but ashes, he said.
Cole’s message to the students, generally freshman to seniors, is that anytime a person is “dehumanized”, as the Jews were during World War II, it paves the way for genocide.
To prove his point, he said, he picks a student from the audience and asks the class to help him “make that person different.”
“First thing I do is take their cell phone, then ask them to imagine that I shaved their head, took all their fashionable clothes and replaced them with a drab uniform. Then, I took away their name. I write a number on their arm and tell them from now on that’s what we’ll call them, I’ve just taken away their name. Next I ask them to imagine they came home and their parents and everything they owned was gone,” he said.
And as the students begin to get into the program, he takes the class to a taped area on the floor, and tells them to crowd together inside those lines, as tight as they can, and then imagine standing there for three days, with people screaming and buckets of urine spilling everywhere.
“My point is that by doing all these things, you start to make people subhuman. They are different from us. And it’s human nature not to like things that are different. Today we call that bullying,” Cole said.
“That’s how Hitler was so successful. How he convinced ordinary German citizens to turn on the Jews. He called them vermin, which are disease-carrying animals,” he added.
Cole, who said he was raised a Catholic, said Hitler was very well educated in various religions, and his swastika symbol is actually that of the Buddhist sign for peace and prosperity turned backwards.
A display at the Hoyt Institute of Fine Arts in New Castle showcased lists and lists of names of Jews saved by Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist credited with hiring and saving 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factories. “But that display didn’t seem like enough to drive the point home,” Cole said.
By the time his presentation is concluded, he said, the students are “pretty well devastated.”
As part of the school tour, Cole is hoping to collect six million pennies. The pennies will be turned into an art sculpture at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
There will be a presentation at the North Shore museum on April 26 and 27.
Cole, who was in Greenville High School Thursday and Friday, said he plans to continue his teaching until the end of April. “I feel very rewarded for the time invested. It’s very interesting to see the attitudes of the students, because most, I’ve found, don’t really have a vested interest in history.”
Mercer County Commissioners issued a proclamation recognizing Monday as a “Day of Remembrance.”
Anyone interested in having Cole address a group can reach him through the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania at 724-981-5882.