“Covid-19 has demonstrated the interdependent nature of our world and that no one is truly safe until everyone everywhere is safe,” wrote Emmanuela Ilok from Nigeria.

“If there is one thing we must take away from this pandemic, it is that our health is only as good as the least healthy person in our environment,” wrote Beatrice Teh from Singapore.

Emmanuela and Beatrice were competing in last year’s Richard Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation’s essay contest for high school students. The Foundation sponsors two contests: one for students in the U.S. and one for students in other countries. Richard Kemper was killed in World War II during the Battle of the Hedgerows.

“There is nothing new to tell you. Just wanted to let you know everything is fine … The country around here is quite pretty. It is rolling land with lots of fields and hedgerows. The farmhouses seem to be made from some kind of sandstone and have thatched roofs. The peasants wear wooden shoes mostly. A few of them are lucky enough to have old, worn-out leather footwear. Their clothing is worn and ragged. But they seem very happy that the Boches have been driven out. Goodbye for now. Loads of Love, Dick.”

Those were the last words Richard Kemper’s parents received from him. Their response was to purchase a plot of land by the high school he attended in Mamaroneck. There they placed trees, benches and a stone tablet showing his name and the names of the school’s 98 other students killed in what Studs Terkel referred to as the “Good War.”. 

“I am sure this sanctuary will inspire our pupils to a deeper sense of devotion to the great cause for which Richard and his fellows made the supreme sacrifice,” the school principal wrote to them after the dedication ceremony. That cause was human rights.

Consequently, the United Nations was created and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and ratified by nearly every country in the world. Then, as Abdul-Rehman Ahmad, a student from Pakistan wrote in another essay, “Treaty by treaty, policy by policy world leaders built a great body of laws and vowed to uphold them and the progress they achieved was immense.”  However, he continued, “in this generation world leaders have forgotten the laws of survival and the world is moving back into an era where racism and extremists inflame Islamophobia and discrimination.” Indeed, as Kaelyn Ha, a Hunter College High School honorable mention winner pointed out, even in our country a wall has been constructed dividing us from the human rights ideals “we once aspired to uphold.”

On Memorial Day, therefore, the best way we can honor those who sacrificed their lives to defend those ideals is to echo the challenge President Ronald Reagan issued to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 while standing at the Brandenburg Gate separating West Berlin from East Berlin. Mr. Biden and members of Congress we should exclaim, “Tear down this wall!”


 — Paul Cantor, Ph.D., is a professor of economics and president of Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation (khref.org). Richard Kemper was his uncle. Cantor attended Quaker Ridge Elementary School and Scarsdale High School. His grandparents lived on Griffen Avenue.

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