Astronomer Carl Sagan was not the only academic who believed knowledge of the past was key to understanding the present. Manhattan College professor Mehnaz Afridi believes that as well, pushing her students — as well as the community — to do just that. Especially when it comes to the Holocaust.
When 11 people were shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue last month, many in the country recoiled in disbelief. However, Afridi — who directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at the school — says it’s important to remember the persecution of Jews is nothing new.
In fact every year, Afridi’s center holds a remembrance ceremony honoring the 90 or so people — although final figures are in dispute — who died during Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. Through a candle lighting vigil, Afridi’s students not only honored the 11 who were murdered this year at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pennsylvania, but those who also lost their lives in 1938.
“I chose to participate because my grandfather had a lot of involvement in World War II and he actually received the Purple Heart medal for saving several wounded officers,” said Joseph Mattone, a senior at Manhattan College. “I was always interested in the Holocaust itself, and Dr. Afridi’s class has totally opened my eyes to the topic.”
At this particular Kristallnacht ceremony, Mattone along with 10 other students lit candles as the names of the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting were read. With the soundtrack of the 1993 film “Schindler’s List” playing in the background, the crowd stood quiet and somber.
This ceremony, however, was just one of many. It followed the first vigil held at the Riverdale monument for the Pittsburgh shooting victims three days after the massacre.
The mission of Afridi’s center is to spread knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism, which steps much further back than World War II. Although she invited students to come out, Afridi didn’t offer any class credit — nor did she have to.
“They came as volunteers,” she said. “They came to speak out against the history of anti-Semitism and to understand that the shooting in Pittsburgh is a continuation of the anti-Semitism that we’ve seen in the world starting from 1938.”
Afridi also invited Stonehill College professor Kevin Spicer, who talked about Christianity’s relationship to anti-Semitism, and shared details about the specific brand of socialism that existed in Germany and the Roman Catholic Church in the decades leading up to the rise of the Nazis.
“I think it’s important to show how Christianity is involved with anti-Semitism,” Afridi said.
“There is an alt-right movement in this country that calls itself ‘Christian,’ and I don’t think that is what Christianity is. But it disguises itself under the name of Christianity.”
Kristallnacht was not only an attack against Jews, but also a horrific turning point in Jewish persecution that went from political to physical, Afridi said. The carnage took place between Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 that year where synagogues, Jewish homes, businesses and schools were burned to the ground.
After the so-called “Night of Broken Glass,” the terror was far from over. Nearly 30,000 Jews were taken to Nazi concentration camps, many of whom were older boys and men.
“I would say that being in Afridi’s class, she kind of stays with a lot of serious material and a lot of in-depth things that are really interesting for anyone interested in world history in regards to World War II,” Mattone said.
Spicer showed newspaper clippings featuring important religious figures who condoned disrespect and stereotypes against Jewish people leading up to World War II. The attitudes of Nazi Germany created a space where Jewish persecution could thrive without pushback.
Afridi emphasized the weight and power of words as she discussed the importance of rhetoric, especially when it comes to the Pittsburgh shooting.
People, she said, must be careful how they address one another.
“I think — for our generation and for today — that this is a way to be active and play a role for all students who are standing up against hate,” Afridi said.