Reflections for International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Georgetown University, Washington DC
The Jewish people remember the Shoah many times during the year. Each occasion provides an opportunity to consider a particular aspect of this unspeakable tragedy. Thus, on Yom HaShoah, which occurs a few days after the festival of Pesach, the heroism of those who fought against their Nazi oppressors is emphasized. The date falls near the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on the eve of Pesach in 1943.
Asarah BeTevet , which falls in December or January, is the fast day established 2610 years ago to remember the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, which ended with the destruction of the city and its temple by Babylonian troops led by Nebuchadnezzar. Many Jews today regard the Shoah as the destruction of a third, spiritual Temple of Jerusalem, one consisting of the six million Jews wiped out by the Nazi genocide. Jews who do not know the dates of the murder of their loved ones recite on this day the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer that praises God even in the midst of loss.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on 27 January 2023, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz. It calls upon all humanity to reflect upon the horror of the construction of factories of death, whose sole purpose was to quickly and efficiently transform human beings into ashes.
The Shoah is not a mere fact of the past, neither is it simply one more chapter in book of human history. For many it remains an open wound that has pained them all their lives. The infinite sadness of the survivors and of those who lost their loved ones leaves an indelible mark on them and on subsequent generations. As Elie Wiesel famously said, “It is true that not all the [Shoah’s] victims were Jews. But all the Jews were victims.” The Shoah can be seen as the most recent and most awful of a number of campaigns to eradicate the Jewish people and tradition. But on this day, bearing in mind that horrible memory, we Jews join, year after year, with all those people who are seeking the good and who continue crying out: never again!
For many thoughtful people around the globe, the Shoah raises vexing questions. How could people degrade their humanity to such a degree of wickedness and misery? How can this dehumanization of both perpetrators and victims be prevented from occurring ever again?
Once the Second World War ended, when humanity awoke from the horrible nightmare it had suffered and became aware of the terrible fate that Nazism had intended for the Jewish people in particular and for humanity in general, “never again” rightly became the motto and sincere commitment of many people. But the spiritual diseases that empowered Nazism and other movements of destruction were not eliminated. Too often “never again” remained only a slogan. There is now a tragically long list of the genocides that have occurred in many places after the Shoah, in some cases resulting in the deaths of millions of people.
In the 8th century BCE, the prophet Amos enumerated the crimes perpetrated by different peoples of the Middle East before levelling harsh criticisms against the injustice that prevailed in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. In the same way that the God of the Bible demands justice and rectitude from the people of Israel, so too does God expect these things from all the peoples and nations of humanity. The cry of Amos, found also in many other prophetic writings, is founded on the conviction that any society in which malice reigns, in which heinous crimes are shamelessly perpetrated, will ultimately end up consuming itself in its own destructive fire.
In Judaism we believe that the rule of law exists and that the Supreme Judge exists (Targum Yerushalmi on Genesis 4:8; Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:2-28d; Bereshit Rabba 26:6; etc.). This belief is shared with many other creeds and worldviews. However, spiritual blindness, the lack of restraint on destructive impulses, causes societies to act as if there were neither universal ethical norms nor any Supreme Judge.
It is in societies where moral values are subverted that antisemitism and other types of hatred and persecution can flourish. Around the world today horrific crimes are committed daily because of the spiritual emptiness of the perpetrators. Only cultures that enhance the lives and dignity of each individual will succeed in fulfilling God’s desires.
This International Holocaust Remembrance Day challenges everyone to heed the never-silenced cry of the millions tortured and massacred not only in the Shoah, but in all the wars throughout the generations, and also in our lamentable present. May the consciences of each person resonate with the key question, the question that God asked Cain after he murdered Abel: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9).