"Shoes on the Danube Bank" memorial, Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Flickr user b k.
In the spring of 1944, a 24-year-old Jewish woman from the small city of Baja (pronounced BAH-ya) in southern Hungary was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, along with an estimated 424,000 other Hungarian Jews. Most did not survive.
But this particular young woman was healthy and strong, suitable for work in the faltering Nazi war machine. This saved her life. Shortly before the Red Army captured Auschwitz in the winter of 1944-45, the young woman was marched westward with a brigade of other slave laborers to a factory in Germany, from which she was eventually liberated when the war in Europe ended. She survived, along with an older sister who had gone to Auschwitz and one of her two brothers. (Another sister had emigrated to Palestine before the war began.) Her other brother, who had been the rabbi in Baja’s small synagogue – now the town library – had been murdered weeks before the deportations began.
The young woman met her future husband in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war. They came to America in 1946 and had a daughter, with whom I am celebrating my 36th wedding anniversary next week. My mother-in-law and her sister shared a two-family home in Queens, New York, where she raised her daughter in a nation of diversity and religious tolerance. She lived to see two granddaughters go off to fine American universities before she died peacefully in that Queens home. My mother-in-law also kept me well-supplied with chocolate cake for a quarter-century.
All this love, joy, academic success and pastry occurred despite the concerted efforts of the Third Reich, which committed industrialized genocide in a manner and scale the world has not seen before or since. There have been other terrible genocides and mass murders, including those affecting the Armenians, the Cambodians and Rwanda’s Tutsi. But the Nazis and their collaborators were unique in the way they gave the extermination of Jews equal priority to fighting a world war. Rail cars that could have carried soldiers and materiel to the Eastern Front instead carried my future mother-in-law and her family to a concentration camp the Nazis never expected them to leave.
Today, a dwindling band of survivors tell their personal stories. Museums and monuments across Europe and North America (and of course Israel’s Yad Vashem) document the story of the Holocaust in minute detail. This collective testimony and physical evidence – much of it originally assembled and preserved by the meticulous Germans themselves – would clear the strict criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” by the legal equivalent of light years, were anyone to put the existence of the Holocaust on historical trial.
So how, then, could a high school principal in Boca Raton, Florida – one of the most affluent and substantially Jewish communities in our nation’s third-largest state – have intimated in an email to a parent that whether the Holocaust occurred is a matter of opinion?
William Latson, until recently the principal of Spanish River High School, told this parent that he needed to remain “politically neutral” in the matter of Holocaust education. As originally reported by the Palm Beach Post, Latson said in an email last year, “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened and you have your thoughts but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs so they will react differently.” He also wrote, “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”
The school district reassigned Latson to an unspecified position and also issued a statement disavowing his waffling on the Holocaust’s factual reality. “In addition to being offensive, the principal’s statement is not supported by either the School District Administration or the School Board,” the district stated. Whether Latson’s new position relates in any way to instruction is unknown; we can hope it does not.
Latson’s stance would be hateful anywhere. But South Florida is the home of an estimated 10,000 Holocaust survivors, including about 400 in the Boca Raton area. The only larger survivor population in the U.S. is in New York. Boca Raton residents were rightfully quick to demand Larson’s removal when the exchange in question became public. Some state representatives, as well as Florida Sen. Rick Scott, have called for the school district to remove Latson from the payroll entirely.
I am not prepared to conclude that Latson is himself a Holocaust denier or an anti-Semite (although the first incorporates the second). I have never interacted with the man. He also apologized after the Post brought the original email exchange to light.
I am, however, prepared to conclude that he is not a teacher in the practical sense of that word. A teacher would have referred any doubting parents to some of the myriad sources where they could have learned about the experiences of my late mother-in-law and the millions of victims like her, most of whom did not survive.
I am also prepared to conclude that Latson was derelict in his duties as a public school principal by displaying ignorance or cowardice, or both, in his refusal to confront or correct parents who objected to the teaching of Holocaust facts at Spanish River High School. Cowardice because Latson had both a moral and a legal duty to teach those facts, as required under Florida’s statute. According to state law, schools must teach “the history of the Holocaust (1933-1945), the systematic, planned annihilation of European Jews and other groups by Nazi Germany, a watershed event in the history of humanity, to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.” And ignorance, not because Latson did not know what happened in Europe during World War II – I have no idea what he knew or did not know at the time he wrote the email in question – but because he apparently did not know that Florida law made Holocaust education a duty, a fact that he should have shared with any parents who questioned it.
As the editorial board of the Sun Sentinel observed, “To deny that 6 million people were murdered simply for being Jewish is to dehumanize the living, as well as the dead.” Whether such denial springs from hate or from ignorance, it should not be allowed to pass. This is especially true for someone who holds responsibility for educating the next generation. Even if Latson himself does not deny the Holocaust, he gave Holocaust denial an undeserved platform.
Like his wife, my father-in-law survived the war because he was sent to perform forced labor. He died in 2015, several years after his wife. But his youngest sister, Kitty Williams of Council Bluffs, Iowa, continues to visit schools and libraries around the Omaha metropolitan area, telling her story of surviving Auschwitz to any who care to listen.
Aunt Kitty was an honored guest at my daughter’s wedding earlier this year. It was an occasion the Third Reich made every effort to prevent, and the fact that it failed does not mean the effort did not occur. There was a lot of love, joy and pastry shared that night. And that’s a historical fact.