In my own family I assumed I'd heard all the tales of heroism or of those who became part of American and global history.
With deep regret I missed the story of my brother-in-law's father, Robert Cleary, who was a first lieutenant serving in the 89th Infantry Division in World War II. Along with his men he killed a guard at the Ohrdruf concentration camp, opened the gates for the few clinging to life and discovered the horrors of Hitler's Third Reich firsthand on April 4, 1945. Among the remains of hundreds of dead were Jews, Russians, Yugoslavs, Greeks, and numerous other "undesirables," and forced laborers from across Europe.
I learned about this precious part of history by reading his obituary in the San Diego Union Tribune in 2008. All he had witnessed was simply gone.
At his memorial service a group of women who were not known walked into the church. The Clearys went to greet them. Curiously they asked how the women knew Mr. Cleary. One of the women said, "We didn't," and she then rolled up the sleeve of her dress; upon her arm was a number given to her by the Nazis. Another woman, who was Polish, was a former inmate at the concentration camp at Zwickau, which Cleary also liberated. The two met 40 years later by coincidence after realizing their mutual connection to history.
The women commented simply, "How could we not attend this service? We came to honor a liberator."
This story has haunted me since the day I heard it. I have met many survivors of the Holocaust and have felt their suffering. I'm honored that they've shared their memories with me.
On the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown sits S.B. 1380, the genocide-education bill. The bill, authored by Republican Sen. Mark Wyland, encourages public high schools to invite survivors of genocide to give personal accounts of their experiences.
In an interview, Sen. Wyland described to me the relevance of S.B. 1380:
This bill is so important for today's students to learn from survivors of these atrocities. Firsthand exposure of these powerful stories will help students understand the importance of tolerance.
Tina Malka, Associate Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego, had this to say about S.B. 1380:
Primary-source materials are vitally important in developing critical-thinking skills and understanding history. That's why ADL partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem in developing "Echoes and Reflections," the leading resource to prepare teachers to teach the complex history of the Holocaust in a way that stimulates engagement, critical thinking and personal understanding among students.
Kevin Beiser, President of the San Diego Unified School District, not only is a board member but has been recognized as a teacher of the year. I had the opportunity to sit down with him to get his thoughts on S.B. 1380. This is what he had to say:
We have a moral obligation to ensure our children learn about the past inhumanity of men to ensure it never is repeated. I joined the students at La Mesa-Spring Valley Middle School many years ago, where a local San Diego Holocaust survivor shared his experience in nine concentration camps in Poland during World War II. David Faber authored the book Because of Romek: A Holocaust Survivor's Memoir to honor his family, who all perished under the reign of Adolf Hitler. The educational and academic value of learning firsthand of the genocide that occurred was of immeasurable significance. Our students will also benefit from learning of other genocidal periods in human history, such as the Holodomor in the Ukraine (1932), the Americas (1492-1900), Armenian (1915), Cambodian (1975), Nigerian (1967), Greek (1915), Rwandan (1994) and others. I support Sen. Wyland's efforts to encourage public high schools to help their students learn firsthand about such atrocities.
Alex Avetoom, an Armenian American who works as a political and public-affairs consultant in San Francisco, and I have had the opportunity to work together on public policy. Alex's family were victims of genocide; his family's experience is often overlooked in American classrooms. In an interview he talked about his family history:
Genocide was first recognized by the United Nations after the term was coined by Raphael Lemkin as his reaction to the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by Turkish nationalist after World War I. My grandfather used to talk to us about the responsibility we have to share the story. He said, "A lot of people had to die and suffer for you to get here today. You owe it to them to make sure that people never forget. You have to keep telling this story for as long as you can." I believe this bill and understanding the nature of genocide that exists today is of fundamental importance to our youth. Our children look to us to educate them and prepare them for the world that they are going to inherit. To make sure they understand the most despicable acts of man not only prepares them to combat genocide in the future but it honors the millions of men, women and children that were murdered.
At this time S.B. 1380 has cleared both the California Assembly and Senate. Gov. Brown, sign this bill, please! It is important that tomorrow's leaders not repeat the mistakes of the generations before them.
Note: Under California law S.B. 1380 can become law without Gov. Brown's signature. Col. Robert Owen Cleary was interned with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and a plaque was placed in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in his honor for being a liberator. To all those who serve or have served in the past: Thank you for your service. For Tom, Brendan, Jack and Becky.