Community College President Jan Gehler

A number of religious, educational and secular leaders attended the memorial service last year, including, from left, John Liffiton, Jannah Scott, Rabbi Michael Beyo, Mayor Jim Lane, Father Sarkis Sarbikian, Yak Dunchunstang, Geshe Jampa Lama, Pastor Erin Tamayo and then-Scottsdale Community College President Jan Gehler. 

Activists, artists and other speakers from around the world will come to Scottsdale next week for Scottsdale Community College’s seventh Genocide Awareness Week – dedicated to educating guests on past and ongoing threats throughout the world.

The event, which attracts thousands of people a year, is free to the public and features professional talks, documentary and film showings and interactive exhibits.

“It’s now become the largest conference in the world on genocide, and it all started here eight years ago,” said John Liffiton, SCC faculty and director of the Genocide Conference.

Liffiton said visitors have come from as far away as Papua New Guinea to attend the conference in the past.

The event originated as an educators’ workshop in June eight years ago. Despite taking place when many instructors were out of town, Liffiton said 130 teachers showed up.

Today, the conference spans many days and includes a diverse range of presentations, from those directed towards educators and students to talks directed towards law enforcement professionals on the importance of protecting human rights.

The enthusiasm for the week has only grown over the years, and Liffiton credits retired SCC President Jan Gehler for embracing his idea to expanding it into a weeklong conference in the spring.

At the first week-long conference, Liffiton said, about 1,200 people showed up.

“Now it’s close to 3,000 people per year just for the presentations,” Liffiton said. “The educational exhibits are 8,000 to 10,000.”

Despite being nearly a decade into the project, Liffiton said he is focused on providing new content and presenters for visitors.

“My responsibility as the founder and director is I have to make it different every year,” Liffiton said, noting that while some speakers return after a few years, every year’s agenda is unique.

Last year’s event focused on the return of artwork looted by the Nazis. This year, the event will look at the Jewish Diaspora in Asia. Liffiton said many Jewish refugees fled to places like Manila and Shanghai during the Holocaust.

Liffiton said the only speaker who comes back every year is Oskar Knoublaugh, a Holocaust survivor.

“Oscar is a survivor from World War II, and there are very few survivors … he has made a curriculum that is a very good curriculum for teachers to teach about the Holocaust,” Liffiton said. “He can give a very articulate message that is inspiring to people … to be aware of what’s going on and to be an upstander (sic) as opposed to a bystander.”

The week includes one day dedicated to the Holocaust and also features talks and presentations on other genocides that have taken place throughout the world in places like Ukraine, Armenia and other countries.

“We cover Guatemala, Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda and Native Americans, because we are on tribal land,” Liffiton said.

This year’s event also features an exhibit on the film “Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg”, which chronicles famed US filmmakers John Ford, George Stevens and Samuel Fuller’s documentation of the realities of war and Nazi concentration camps during their service in the US military and secret service during World War II.

The exhibit, presented by Paris-based Memorial de la Shoah in the Student Center Lobby, will remain until April 30.

The week will feature a showing and discussion of the film on April 10.

It will begin in earnest on April 15 and run through April 20. Each day features a variety of talks, documentaries and plays presented by survivors, educators, law enforcement professionals, artists and activists.

The event will officially wrap up April 24 with a memorial service held at SCC’s genocide memorial monument.

The service will feature a diverse lineup of religious and secular leaders, including Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane.

Liffiton said the overall conference is important for a number of reasons.

“The importance is understanding history, so we can recognize certain trends and certain things that are happening,” Liffiton said.

He said the topics and issues brought up at the conference give context to the decisions individuals make every day.

“So you look at it from a practical point of view and people need to know what’s going on, so they know what to vote for, who to vote for … what to buy, what not to buy and what you think about certain issues,” Liffiton said.

Beyond that, he said it is a way to honor the victims.

“It’s important to honor the people who lost their lives, because otherwise, if you don’t honor those people and remember that these people were not allowed to live and have normal lives … then by not honoring them, by not remembering them like this, is like (saying) their lives weren’t important, and they were,” Liffiton said.