The Holocaust – Wasn’t that more than 60 years ago?
Precisely the point! This year, by Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 19, the youngest Holocaust survivors will be more than 80 years old. For us who were born after the Holocaust and aren’t Jewish, the holocaust may seem like a long time ago. But for the survivors and the families of victims and survivors, the Holocaust is still an open wound.
The youngest survivor today would have been 13 years old at the time. (The Nazis considered children younger than that too young for work and sent them to the gas chambers.) Thirteen is a pivotal age in anyone’s life, but imagine growing up having the Holocaust as your coming of age introduction. These people went on to have families — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who, in turn, all grew up with this unspeakable horror as their backdrop and orientation to the world.
Consider what it must be like for Jews born after the Holocaust, our friends and neighbors today. They’ve never known a time in which the Holocaust was not a part of their family. It’s likely that every Jewish person in Europe, North America and the Middle East either lost one or more family members or knows someone who lost family in the atrocity.
My own grandparents are now in their 90s. We love to talk about their childhoods, memories of life in rural America, and the circumstances by which our family came to live in America. But for our Jewish friends today, it would’ve been a horrifying thing to learn about what happened to their parents or grandparents. It’s personal, and they and their children will carry it with them forever.
The survivors and many others have done yeomen’s work in telling their painful stories and creating ways for us to remember exactly what happened during the 11 years they endured. But now, the mantle is passing. Soon there will be no eye-witnesses to remind us. The responsibility of remembering will be left to those of us who’ve heard the stories and know people whose families were affected by it.
But why continue to remember such a painful time? George Santayana, wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Holocaust is not only Jewish history. It’s a tragedy of human history–one that all races should regard with trepidation. It’s an account of the dreadful impact a small minority can have if the majority looks the other way. One regime was able to kill 6 million people in 22 countries. Ultimately, of the 16 million Jews worldwide in 1939, 10 million survived. Today their population is estimated near 13 million.
Like us today, no one then ever dreamed something like that could happen in their own country. But the beginnings were subtle; no one expected something so horrible to come from the anti-Semitism that had been a fact of life for so long before Hitler. We are not immune to it today. Remembering, understanding its beginnings and its progression is our only hope of not falling into the trap ourselves. From this example, it’s easy to see that standing up to even subtle forms of racial or religious discrimination is required. Martin Niemoeller put it this way:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
This Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), consider this poignant reflection from The Holocaust Memorial of San Antonio, TX and take a stand with your Jewish friends:
“Although the Holocaust occurred in Europe many years ago, it continues to challenge our belief in human progress and force us to confront fundamental questions about the human capacity for evil and the human will to resist it. In examining the grim realities of this dark period of history, we come to understand that bigotry and racism can triumph only where there is indifference. Silence in the face of evil is never neutral. It encourages the oppressor. If it is possible to learn from history, it may also be possible to create a world in which we all see ourselves in the faces of strangers.”