After my book, It Happened in Italy: The Untold Story of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, was published in 2009, I was invited to speak around the world on the little-known history of how many individual Italians risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Their actions made a difference. Approximately 80% of the Jews in Italy survived because of their actions. Approximately 80% of the Jews in occupied Europe were murdered because of their actions - or inaction. I sign all my books, "If you are not indifferent, things can be different."
People who heard these stories of bravery were in awe of the sacrifice of these individual Italians. I wanted to know the impact that this knowledge had on their lives. This was the seed for the Be the Difference - Never Again program.
My hope -- people would be inspired to take action to help others. Even a simple act, giving up your seat on the bus for someone, or shoveling snow for a neighbor, can make an incredible difference.
Robbie Shackelford, Director of Harding University in Florence (HUF) read my book and immediately included it as part of the curriculum in Harding's Study Abroad program. Robbie takes the students to Campagna, a small mountain village hidden in a valley an hour outside of Naples. They visit the Holocaust Museum, Museo della Memoria e della Pace, located in the former San Bartolomeo concentration camp, which was in a former convent.
The impact on the students was profound -- they learned a positive lesson from an otherwise dark period of time. They saw examples of the choices people made to be the difference, how individual actions can change history, even save lives.
Robbie invited me to speak to his students in Florence and Arkansas and a wonderful friendship was born. My desire and vision, coupled with Robbie’s experience, created a unique project for students using World War II as an event and time frame.
Robbie and I traveled to Poland on January 27, 2015, to attend the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp. Over 300 people who survived the atrocities in Auschwitz, all over 85 years old, returned on that bitter cold day. Their goal -- to ensure people never forget what happened to them, their families, their friends, their neighbors. Their hope -- never again should such horrors occur.
Roman Kent, a survivor, was a keynote speaker. He suggested the addition of an 11th Commandment to the 10 Commandments we know, "Thou Shall Not Be a Bystander." He asked people to take action, because when we do not, evil wins.
That evening, Zdenko, a Holocaust survivor saved in Italy, sent me an email of all of the American Cemeteries located in Europe. At the end of his message it says, 103,980 BRAVE AMERICANS are buried in Europe. 20,308 are listed as Missing in Action. How many French, Dutch, Italians, Belgians and Brits are buried on our soil...after defending us against our enemies?
When I showed the email to Robbie - we knew we found our project! We gave students an assignment to research an individual American soldier buried in the American Cemetery in Florence, find out who they were before they were a soldier, and remember his or her sacrifice.
Robbie introduced me to Michael Wright, Director of European Programs for Duquesne University. The Duquesne in Rome program is involved in a cultural exchange program with a local Italian high school, I.I.C. Einstein-Bachelet and Be the Difference – Never Again. Two American students are paired with two Italian high school students and assigned a soldier buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno (Anzio). The students research the stories of individual soldiers and visit the American Cemetery for a memorial service to honor those who sacrificed their lives to liberate Italy. Additionally, through this unique intercultural experience, many friendships were created. The program became part of Duquesne’s “Intercultural Awareness” class, a requirement of all study abroad students. The students also visit Campagna and the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.
The “Be the Difference – Never Again” project is rich with possibilities. Not only is it a program that touches students deeply while abroad, but it helps each student to be a better American upon their return. Students find a new respect for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. They realize that these are not simply moments for a day off from school, a barbeque, or discounts at department stores/online shopping, but the days are connected to the sacrifice of people who made a difference. Our mission statement: “Each person, every action, large or small makes a difference” is an essential message for all to remember.
Your Opportunity to Be the Difference
You too can Be the Difference by making a choice to not be a bystander in life. Remember people who made a difference and let their actions inspire you.
Elizabeth Bettina Nicolosi, Creator and Founder