When should we mark the end of the Holocaust? No, it’s not a trick question. We use anniversaries to help commemorate and remember events, yet the magnitude of the Shoah makes this difficult, if not impossible.
Some use the date of the liberation of Auschwitz as an anniversary of remembrance. For all the symbolism of that place as the epicenter of suffering, far too much agony still lay ahead for our people.
And the precious few Jews remaining alive by the time the Soviets arrived had been moved, often by brutal forced march.
Months later came rescue from the West for the concentration camp inmates at Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen Belsen and other places. It was then that the first awful images of the scope of the destruction came to light. Was the Shoah over? In the ensuing days and weeks, thousands more would die from disease or even from the richness of real food after long stretches of near starvation. Some who were able to endure “liberation” then spent months in hospital settings.
There were survivors who tried to find their way back to their homes, only to find them occupied, often by former neighbors, who maintained a strong current of anti-Semitism and resentment at their continued existence. Pogroms broke out, with still more deaths.
Others were confined to displaced persons (DP) camps, often for years. True, they were not quite prisoners, but they were certainly not completely free.
Next was the agony of taking a human inventory. Yes, of course there was joy in finding a loved one alive, but there was also the pain of confirming that so many had been lost.
Had the Holocaust really ended for the various remnants of European Jewry?
This year, as we gather in our communities to remember the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust during Yom Hashoah V’hagvurah, we note that it has been 70 years since the end of the first Nuremberg trial. That proceeding, where the very top leadership of the Nazi killing machine stood accused, was the first of many trials over decades, both at Nuremberg and elsewhere.
This was not an end but the beginning of a long process of seeking justice for the victims and some semblance of reconciliation for survivors and, indeed, the entire Jewish people.
The survivors called upon to testify in these various trials had a tremendous burden put on their shoulders. They represented not only themselves, but all those who suffered along with them. These men and women not only had to be strong and articulate, but accurate. And they often testified in front of courts where the principals, including the prosecution, carried their own biases about Jews.
In the fall of 1970, more than 25 years after the end of the war, Ludwig Charatan, received a registered letter at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., asking him to come to Germany to testify at the International Criminal Court against the former commandant of the infamous Janowska Concentration Camp in present-day Ukraine. Reluctant at first, Lou knew that he had to meet head-on this particularly sadistic and brutal killer from his past. In the court, only a few feet away, the man calmly sat. For a moment Charatan thought about extracting his own personal justice.
Once on the witness stand, Lou was at first confronted with a complete scale model of the camp, but he quickly realized it contained errors, perhaps even put there deliberately. Circling around it, he pointed out the problems until one of the judges said, “The man knows what he speaks about.” With that, his testimony began.
The commandant was sentenced to life in prison and died eight years later. Lou, now 90, still derives great satisfaction from helping to expose the truth to the world.
And so it is with so much of the public testimony of the survivors. The trials are mostly over now, but we remember their brave and personally painful efforts on behalf of the victims who didn’t survive, making sure that the perpetrators of the Holocaust received some measure of justice for their awful deeds.
These accomplishments are also an important part of the history of the Shoah. We should commemorate that as well.
Jeremy Kay is the executive director of Library of the Holocaust and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Holocaust Commission.