Faces of ALBA: Jack Mayerhofer

June 2, 2020

Jack Mayerhofer is the newest member of the ALBA Board of Governors and its freshest face.  A leading figure in the protection human rights and the development of education programs to prevent mass atrocities across the globe, Jack holds a B.S. in French and Applied Linguistics from Penn State University and an M.S. in Global Affairs from Rutgers University.

Could you tell us what you do at the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities and why you were drawn to its mission?

I was drawn to the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (AIPG) because of the clear and urgent need of its mission, working to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes. More specifically, though, I was attracted to AIPG’s approach of understanding that prevention is a long-term process that must start very early in the conflict cycle and be a sustained, ongoing effort. Atrocity prevention is not about taking action only when it is clear the situation is dire but about paying attention to, and mitigating, the early signs that can put a society on the path for experiencing large scale identity-based violence.

As Deputy Executive Director at AIPG I work on a wide range of the organization’s programs. This includes providing support to my colleagues across our different offices in Oswiecim, Poland (the former Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz) New York, USA, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kampala Uganda, and Bucharest, Romania as well as leading the development of all new and emerging programs at AIPG.

Is there an initiative that AIPG is working on now that you would like to highlight?

Like many other organizations, AIPG has been in the process of adapting how we work to ensure that we can still provide the necessary support to our partners in government and civil society in a COVID-19-adjusted world. We’ve transformed our in-person training programs into online courses, for example. But the increases we are seeing in levels of discrimination due to the COVID-19 pandemic also have serious implications for the work of atrocity prevention. We try to understand what conditions put a given society at greater risk for experiencing large scale violations of human rights and identity-based violence and try to provide assistance to the stakeholders in that State or region who are best positioned to mitigate those risk factors. As we have seen in all corners of the globe, including the United States and Europe, COVID-19 not only presents a severe public health risk but it has also elevated levels of hate speech and scapegoating, and has led to unprecedented levels of macroeconomic instability and insecurity. This could further erode civil liberties, exacerbate inequality, and increase authoritarianism. With this in mind, we are developing both research and training support for governments to better respond to these worrying trends brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In November 2018, you gave testimony before Congress on the work of AIPG in preventing mass atrocities, focusing on your great work in Tanzania.  

Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission has created a particularly important venue to speak about how the US government can develop better policy for atrocity prevention. A few months after that hearing, in January of 2019, the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was signed into law legally codifying atrocity prevention in the US national interest. In addition, it also requires training for select foreign service officers on prevention and compels the President to submit an annual report to Congress on the USG’s efforts on atrocity prevention.

Do you have a personal connection to the Spanish Civil War or the Volunteers?

My partner is from Valencia, one of the capitals of the Spanish Republic before Franco’s fascist forces took control of the country, and her oldest relatives have vivid memories of the Civil War and post-war period. And I have always been inspired by the motivations and spirit of volunteers, like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, that fought for the Republic. I have always found the strength of their conviction inspiring—and increasingly relevant for the world we live in today.      

Both AIPG and ALBA use history to inform the present and both have a focus on human rights.  How do you connect the two organizations’ activities?

Both ALBA and AIPG understand that there are lessons that we can learn from the past and make use of today, in order to counteract the destructive forces that lead to the rise of fascist dictatorships like the Franco regime. While we cannot develop prescriptive formulas from the past and strictly apply them to events today, we can learn lessons and develop better practices and strategies for preventing the conditions that lead to democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarian regimes and the violence that characterize them. This work must employ all possible strategies including training, awareness raising, education, and memorialization among many others, and AIPG and ALBA’s work is very connected in contributing to this effort.

Aaron Retish teaches at Wayne State University.