“Work will set you free”
Is this slogan a catchy conversation starter? Given the steadily eroding awareness of the Holocaust in America and at Vanderbilt, it is perhaps not surprising that a Vanderbilt student was not aware of the horrific significance of Arbeit Macht Frei the phrase written above Nazi concentration camps during World War II. No doubt, too, many of the students, faculty, and staff — including some Jews — that passed these words as they used the walking bridge last week were unaware of their offensive nature. Jewish people familiar with this phrase, walking by it written next to a gate evokes only a horrific chapter in our people's history where we were hunted down for who we are. To see it on a wall at Vanderbilt is to see a terrible misappropriation of our history at best, and a menacing threat at worst.
Still, while the student respectfully apologized for his actions, the claim of ignorance only goes so far. As any Vanderbilt student knows, we are held accountable for our academic work. If a student inadvertently forgets to correctly cite a source in a paper, the consequences are severe. If a student fails to adequately research a topic for a research paper, they should expect to get a failing grade, as well. We hope the University investigates this situation fully and adjudicates it fairly, based on the facts, the message, and the intent of the artist.
This means that the University must own its share of responsibility, as well. If the intention of the art project was to create controversy, it certainly succeeded, but why didn’t the professor review projects beforehand? What is the point of having the longest running Holocaust Lecture Series in the country if Vanderbilt isn’t ensuring students, faculty, and staff have a basic level of knowledge about the Holocaust and other genocides? This incident has shed light on the lack Holocaust education and awareness at Vanderbilt, and it is important to take action to change that. Vanderbilt offers several courses that study the Holocaust and the history surrounding it. It is important that we educate ourselves, so that, as the saying goes, we will "never forget".