My mother came to the U.S. by herself on a boat from a Lithuanian town (Taurage) in 1929. She was six, and had followed, by a few years, my grandparents, crossing the Atlantic by herself—steerage. Most of the rest of my grandmother’s family had already left in the mid-to-late ‘20s for what was then called Palestine, but what is now the State of Israel. As a result, all but a small part of the family escaped the Shoah—the Holocaust.
My mother would often tell of her first cousin, Shroelik, with whom she would pick strawberries during the years between my grandparents’ departure for the U.S. and my mother’s journey to the Goldene Medina (Golden Land).
Unlike my mother, Shroelik remained in Lithuania, and at age of 17, he was shot in the back by the Nazis as he simply stood in a field. He was shot for simply standing, for being a Jew; perhaps he was picking strawberries. But he was luckier than some; his death came quickly. He did not suffer the slow murder of starvation and ultimate extermination in one of the Nazi death camps as did millions of Jews in a calculated plan to exterminate an entire people.
This evening begins the observance of Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day. It is observed to remember the six million Jews slaughtered in Hitler’s “Final Solution.” But remembering the Shoah requires more than saying a few prayers, reading a book, watching Schindler’s List or Exodus or The Pianist. It requires a rededication to making certain that it “never happens again.” To anyone: Jew, Christian, Muslim. To any race, any creed, any color.
Shockingly, genocide (or its intention) exists still today. Ethnic cleansing exists still today. It happens in the Sudan; it happens in The Congo. It happens in Europe. The potential exists wherever the powerful oppress the powerless, where poverty is used as a bludgeon and rape as a weapon of war.
But the potential also exists whenever there is indifference; where those with the power to do something exist in a bubble, disconnected from distant places and others’ troubles. Why should we should care what happens in Sudan—what happens in The Congo? What has that to do with us?
Ruth Messinger, Director of the American Jewish World Service, relates an incident at an event where she spoke to a group of Jews about the necessity to fight genocide or the seeds of it, whether the victims are Jewish or not. A man stood to ask why we should care; they have nothing to do with us. And if they are like many others in African nations, they likely have no love for Jews, anyway. Before Messinger had a chance to respond, a “little old Jewish lady”—a Holocaust survivor—approached the man, and getting herself right up into his face shouted, “It is because of you I have no family.”
It was, and is, exactly the attitude of that man that makes genocide possible. Indifference creates the necessary last ingredient for genocidal plans to prevail, and makes us indirectly complicit by our silence.
Oppression, brutality, and genocide happen too often under the radar of the 24-hour news cycle. We are far more interested in seeing Donald Trump on the front page than we are in confronting photos of starving children and bodies stacked in mass graves. But this is nothing new. And as Messinger suggests, had the New York Times covered the Holocaust on the front page more than six times while it was ongoing, horrors perpetrated might have been at least somewhat mitigated.
Yes, it is good to remember, to recall, to chant the prayer for the dead, El Moleh Rachamim, recite Kaddish and light yellow candles to remember and mourn the victims of the Shoah: our grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. But it is equally important to honor their memory through action. To say “never again!” must mean more than the mere utterance of a slogan.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel eloquently said, “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
It is a large and endless task to fight oppression and genocide. But, as my tradition states, “It may not be possible to complete the task, but neither may we refuse to tackle it.”
Sometimes action may be as small as paying attention to the brand of coffee you use. The American Jewish World Service provides a comprehensive resource for volunteer and awareness opportunities to take a first step or a tenth. You never know, the impact of a single action can transform a life and transcend our differences.