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Ray Sun educates people about genocides, Holocaust

Ray Sun teaches history. Photo courtesy of Ray Sun

By Mary Stamp

Raymond (Ray) Sun's education and teaching focus on modern German history and the study of genocides.

As associate professor of history at Washington State University in Pullman, he is well aware that any society, religion, culture, race or ethnicity has the potential to commit genocide.

From his commitment to educate people on the Holocaust, he has served two years on Spokane's Yom HaShoah Committee and will be the featured speaker for the 2023 Spokane Community Observance of the Holocaust.

He will speak on "Policies, Papers and Polls: America's Indifference to Jewish Refugees, 1933 to 1941" at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 20, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave.

Ray is the first generation in his family born in the U.S.

His father had moved from North China in the late 1930s to study engineering. Because they were academics, his mother's family fled Beijing to Southwest China after the Japanese invaded in 1937. Her parents had studied in the U.S. in the 1910s, so they wanted her to move in September 1941 to study in the U.S., just before World War II.

Ray's parents met in graduate school, and both taught at Pennsylvania State University in Central Pennsylvania, where he grew up.

In 1982, he earned a bachelor's degree in history from Swarthmore College, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Then he earned a master's at the University College in Cork, Ireland, and master's and doctoral degrees in modern German history at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, completing his doctoral degree in 1992.

In 1991, Ray, who is married and has a daughter, began his career at Washington State University in Pullman, teaching a class on the history of Nazi Germany, which has been a regular part of his teaching load throughout the years.

Other classes he has taught include comparative genocides on a global scale, the history of the Holocaust, representations of the Holocaust in music, film and culture, along with the history of the world wars and how societies remember and forget major traumatic events.

That background led to his association with Spokane Holocaust survivor Carla Peperzak, who invited him to serve on the Commemoration Committee.

In Pullman, Ray had been involved for five years in the early 2000s in planning Holocaust Remembrance Week programs, speakers, films, concerts and events for WSU.

After he first heard about Carla when providing background for stories in the Spokesman-Review in 2015, he began inviting her to speak to his classes.

Then the Seattle Holocaust Center asked Ray to interview her so they could record her story on a video.

"Yes, the Holocaust happened," he affirms for those who deny the history.

"Holocaust denial is an ugly, terrible example of how people in an ideological bubble convince themselves it didn't happen," Ray said.

His study of the theory and practice of genocide reveals its universal potential.

"It's easy in the U.S., where the Holocaust is the best-known genocide to take a stand of moral superiority in viewing the Nazis, Germans and collaborators and perpetrators of the horrors, but there have been many genocides in this nation through history, even though the mainstream history taught in public schools does not acknowledge them," Ray said.

College history courses do include discussions of the U.S. genocides.

"While we focus on the Holocaust as one of the most studied genocides, other genocides deserve the same study, research and memorialization," he said. "There are universal lessons we can learn from the histories of each unique group.

"What we know about this genocide can transfer across history to today, from generalities to particularities, making awareness accessible across time and space," Ray explained.

He cautions, however, against using the Holocaust study as a "cut-and-paste" illustration of fundamental principles, because there is a need to understand genocide as a wider phenomenon.

"While we honor the experience from 1941 to 1945 in which Jews were victims and Germans were perpetrators, we need to address genocide beyond the Jewish experience," he pointed out.

He observed how quickly people may forget groups experiencing genocide.

Since 2014, the Uyghur genocide in China has had some but limited news coverage, Ray said.

The persecution and killings of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was often in the news in 2016. They were driven out and now live in a huge refugee camp, which was only recently in the news when a major fire damaged much of that camp.

"It's an example of how quickly a genocide can be forgotten," he said, noting how it is lost in the news cycle.

Ray wants to believe people can learn the signs to identify a genocide and stop it.

Scholars can apply research and theory to analyze what constitutes a genocide, but then the question is how to apply that so people can do something about genocide, he suggested.

"It's hard politically and economically to name a genocide," he said. "Only now is there some recognition in Turkey of the Armenian genocide from 1915 to 1917.

"If no one remembers a genocide, did it happen?" Ray asked, likening that to the philosophical question of whether there is sound if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it.

"My interest is to remember survivor communities and to say the names of victims," he said.

A new memorial, the Dutch National Holocaust Memorial seeks to name every one of the 100,000 Dutch Jews who were murdered.

"There is an existential connection between naming someone who existed and giving them validity," he said, quoting Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who said that "to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."

For Ray, that is why denialism is so dangerous: It's an attempt to murder people a second time by saying the genocide did not happen.

He believes it matters to remember, but it's hard to do because of some political interests.

"It's about the politics of memory," he said. "Commemoration and memorializing focuses on the living as much as it honors the dead. It is for teaching children the lessons for the future generations to maintain a lived memory."

While Ray did not grow up religious, in college he encountered and was in community with some evangelical Christian students. Then he was influenced by some enthusiastic Catholics and converted in college.

In grad school, he was involved with a Mennonite community and then became part of a Pentecostal church and then a Quaker community in Pullman.

Part of his study of the Holocaust was influenced by his earlier study of German Catholics.

"My approach to genocide is informed by my faith, believing in God as a Christian open to other truths, as those of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other traditions," he said.

"I believe in the concept of good and evil. I believe there is absolute evil. It is more than just being wrong, but involves destruction of all, causing human suffering and destroying the human community," he explained. "I believe there is good beyond ordinary civility, manners and good people. There is absolute good. I believe those poles exist."

While the Holocaust could be a dark, depressing subject of learning how evil operates and how society succumbs to enabling destructive policies, acts and beliefs, Ray believes that the important lesson is from people who are aware of the consequences and have the courage to say "no" to those policies, acts and beliefs.

For information, call 336-5611 or email

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023