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 Italians risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Their actions, made a difference. The results: Approximately 80% of the Jews in Italy survived. Approximately 80% of the Jews in occupied Europe were murdered. 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 Italians. I wanted to know the impact that this knowledge had on their lives. My hope was that these acts of bravery would inspire people to take action to help others, even simple acts like giving up their seat on the bus for someone else. This was the seed for the "Be the Difference - Never Again" program.
Robbie Shackelford, Director of Harding University in Florence (HUF) read my book and included it as part of the curriculum in his Spring 2011 study abroad program. He began visiting with his students the small mountain village of Campagna, near Naples, with a museum in a little-known former concentration camp. The impact on the students was profound as they learned a positive lesson from an otherwise dark period of time. They learned that when we choose to be the difference our actions can change, or even save, lives.
Robbie invited me to speak to his students in Florence and in Arkansas, from which a wonderful friendship was formed. We worked together to form a project that study abroad students could do as part of a class, a program field trip, or even a partnership between schools. My vision coupled with Robbie’s experience brought us to create a project that would use World War II as an event and time frame. Students would explore people who were able to be the difference in order to make an impact on others, making the Holocaust or U.S. servicemen/servicewomen buried abroad as viable themes for institutions choosing to incorporate the project into their programs.
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 and heard the words of Jewish survivor, Roman Kent. He suggested the addition of an 11th Commandment - "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 who was saved in Italy, sent me an email that showed 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? We knew we were on the right path!
In September 2015, after taking his study abroad students to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial for over 25 years, Robbie decided as Secretary of the Association of American College and University Programs in Italy (AACUPI) to invite Directors of American study abroad programs in Italy, as well as other schools and entities, to join him in the “Be the Difference-Never Again” project. Institutions like Kent State University, Kennesaw State University, California State University, Florida State University, several Italian High Schools, as well as members of the U.S. Armed Forces at Camp Darby (Pisa) and Aviano Air Base (Vicenza) participated in the “Be the Difference Never Again” project with the Harding University students. This time the project focused on learning the stories of individual American soldiers buried at the cemetery and then sharing that knowledge with others.
In April 2016, I was introduced to Michael Wright, Director of European Programs for Duquesne University, including the Duquesne in Rome program. Duquesne’s Italian campus had been working since 2005 in a cultural exchange program with the I.I.C. Einstein-Bachelet high school located next door to their university campus. In September 2017, the “Be the Difference – Never Again” project became a part of Duquesne’s cornerstone class, “Intercultural Awareness”, taken by all study abroad students coming to Italy. Students were paired with Italian high school students and were assigned an individual soldier buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno (Anzio), just an hour’s drive outside of Rome. The students researched the stories of individual soldiers before journeying together to the cemetery for a memorial service where they paid homage to those who had sacrificed to liberate Rome and fought for freedom on the peninsula. Not only were students touched by what they learned, but a unique intercultural experience was born and friendships were created. The program continues to be a part of the study abroad experience in Rome.
As part of their “action plan”, Duquesne University students, after returning home from their study abroad experience, have raised thousands of dollars for today’s wounded soldiers through their annual Christmas ornament drive called “Holiday Help for Heroes”.
In April 2018, Duquesne in Rome made the visit to the former concentration camp of Campagna and the Rome Jewish Ghetto additional extensions of the “Be the Difference – Never Again” project and the Intercultural Awareness course. Students use the It Happened in Italy: The Untold Story of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust book and create presentations to learn more about the Holocaust.
I was invited to speak at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, the Robert Kennedy Center and the American Consulate in Florence in November 2018, giving me an opportunity to share how impactful this project continues to be on students. During that trip to Italy, I also had the privilege to meet students who were currently working on the “Be the Difference – Never Again” project and to hear how it left a positive mark on their study abroad experience. I was touched by their gratitude. Since 2018, even schools that are unable to visit the American cemeteries in Europe have worked on this project remotely.
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, Veterans Day, and Holocaust Remembrance 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 are connected to the sacrifice of real people who made a difference. Our mission statement: “Each person, every action, large or small makes a difference” is an essential message for young and old alike in our modern world. We invite you and your students to join us in the “Be the Difference-Never Again” project.
Elizabeth Bettina Nicolosi, Creator and Founder