Seventy years ago the madness we now know as the Holocaust ended. We will take note of this sad milestone at various events commemorating the Shoah, focusing no doubt on liberation and the end of the war, but also recognizing that for many survivors, the waning months of the Shoah were among the most brutal and cruel.
Still, finally, at some point those who survived could begin the process of living again— mourning, reconnecting, and rebuilding.
Now all these years later we gather, as we do every year, for Holocaust Remembrance Day with the survivors that are still with us. They are old, to be sure, and for the most part, very wise. They have seen the face of evil up close and they have much to offer, both by their experiences and their sageness.
Will we listen? Or will the phrases like “never again” become slogans that we wear like talismans to ward off malevolent spirits?
In the past we have allowed ourselves the luxury of considering such existential notions as intellectual arguments. Of course, most of us recognize that anti-Semitism never disappeared, but until recently seemed tolerable. Now the rhetoric is intensified and physical attacks have escalated.
Just because the enormity of the Shoah is never likely to be equaled does not mean that a lesser evil would not be disastrous.
The French experience with the Dreyfus Affair, which exposed the latent hatred of Jews to the world, did not deter some French citizens four decades later from collaborating with the Nazis in rounding up Jews and sending them to Auschwitz. Today, France is the scene of attacks at Jewish schools and kosher supermarkets. In Germany, even, but also in Hungary and a number of other countries, there are signs that the lessons of the Holocaust were not truly absorbed. Yet many of the countries of Europe have laws against anti-Semitism. They are supposed to protect against harmful speech and symbols. These prohibitions tend to mask problems, not prevent them.
And what of America?
Here in the land that George Washington declared “to bigotry no sanction” has been a place that allowed Jews to be Jews and also to be individuals. No, we have not been immune from the prejudice and hatred that was normal in many parts of the world. However, our concepts of individual liberty and God-endowed rights have allowed us to thrive and prosper like never before in history.
When the Henry Ford-owned newspaper began to publish articles that railed against the “international Jew,” for example, Jews stood up, both in organizations and as individuals; it was one man in particular, Louis Marshall, that made Ford publically recant.
The Shoah has taught us assimilation is not the ultimate answer. The Jews of Germany in the 1920s felt secure in their German identity — as did the French Jews in theirs.
Let’s pause here to take a breath. It can’t happen here, can it? We would almost to the last person say no, of course not. Yet, acts of intimidation against Jews on college campuses are becoming more commonplace and organizations called mainstream regularly sign on to the sanctions movement, known as BDS, against Israel. It has become fairly obvious that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Jewish.
It’s at least a little unnerving, isn’t it?
Certainly, sitting down and discussing one’s differences is good. Knowledge of other cultures and backgrounds can lead to common ground and a lessening of suspicion and hatred. Ironically, the first exposure to Jews and Judaism for many GIs in World War II was not when they first saw the aftermath of the Holocaust in Europe 70 years ago, but was from the Jewish soldiers they encountered in boot camp. It made a lasting impression.
You cannot talk with bigots and bullies, nor is there any way to reason with the irrational. It was true during the Nazi era and it is valid today. We must be vigilant and strong, for ourselves and for each other. We should climb upon the shoulders of everyone who had to go through the Shoah. They have shown the way. In their honor, exit this year’s Yom Hashoah V’Hagvurah with a renewed dedication. Let’s try to be heroes—each in our own way—so that not one of us will ever have to be a martyr again.
The writer is a leader of B’nai B’rith’s program, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name,” which occurs during the JCRC’s Holocaust Observances for Maryland on April 12 and for Virginia on April 19.