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Texas Holocaust book debate should teach us to stand up and say 'No'

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In October 1943 – 78 years ago this month – a letter by the Copenhagen bishop was read aloud in Danish churches. In part, it said: "Wherever Jews are persecuted because of their religion or race it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution, because it is in conflict with the sense of justice inherent in the Danish people and inseparable from our Danish Christian culture." 

The bishop did this because a German official named Georg Duckwitz had gone to the Danish government and alerted them to a directive that had just come from Gestapo headquarters. The German army was to round up and arrest all Jews in Denmark. Transportation to the camps was in place and waiting. 

They had the names and addresses of the more than 7,000 Danish Jews and would make the arrests during the Jewish High Holidays later in October. But when that time came, the Germans pounded on the doors, kicked them in and found every house and apartment empty.

Moral courage during the Holocaust 

In an amazing display of collective and spontaneous moral courage, the Christian population of the country had risen up, hidden and saved their Jewish population. In the days that followed, the Jews were smuggled in fishing boats to Sweden, a neutral country where they would be safe.

A 9-year-old girl named Mette Hannover didn’t even know she was Jewish. Her family had been nonobservant. She huddled, seasick and frightened, in the bottom of a boat and her life was saved. Eventually, she would marry an American and raise their sons in Chicago.

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In another boat, a 14-year-old named Bent Melchior was also cold and seasick and scared. He knew he was Jewish; his father was a rabbi. Bent was also saved and years later became, himself, the chief rabbi of Denmark. 

Mette Hannover Shayne has died. So has Bent Melchior, just this past summer. Those survivors of the Danish rescue who are still alive are now very old. But they have left children and grandchildren. They have left a legacy: They were part of a true story of empathy and integrity.

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Thirty-two years ago I wrote a book, intended for a readership of children 8 to 12 years old, describing the events in 1943 Denmark. I called the book "Number the Stars," borrowing a phrase from Psalm 147:

He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars
and calls them each by name.

Translated now into 28 languages, the book is in schools throughout the world and has been read by countless children. I hear from teachers all the time. Once a fourth-grade teacher in Tennessee told me that she read the book aloud to her class and one day brought with her to the classroom a necklace with a Star of David. A similar necklace was depicted on the book’s cover and played a role in the story. While she read the final chapter, she said, she watched the children pass the necklace from desk to desk, and saw each child press it solemnly into the palm of their hand, imprinting the star there.

'No. Never again'

Last week a school official in the Texas town of Southlake directed teachers and librarians there that no book should exist in their classrooms or libraries unless it could be paired with another book depicting an “opposing" perspective.  

At the meeting where this directive was explained (and recorded), a teacher asked, in disbelief, “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” Another said, “Number the Stars?”

Ensuing publicity brought about a hasty soothing apology and recantment from the superintendent.

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In 1933, in Opera Square in Berlin, 25,000 books deemed “un-German” were publicly burned with great ceremony while bands played in celebration. It was the early stages of Hitler’s rise to power. Today, in Germany, on the anniversary each year of the book burning, German citizens – many of them teachers – stand at that place and read aloud from the books that were burned. It is a way of standing up, as the Danish Christians did, and saying, "No. Never again." 

It was the philosopher George Santayana who once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There are so many decent citizens, so many people with integrity, in Texas and throughout this country. We can remember the past. We have learned from it. We can stand up and say, "No."

Perhaps the place where we should do it is in the voting booth.

Lois Lowry is the author of bestselling children's books, including "Number the Stars" and "The Giver." 

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