Dawn breaking over Husum, Germany
Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. When I was a young Rabbi, a Catholic priest asked me, “What is this obsession you have with remembering? Why can’t you just focus on the present and the future?”
The best answer I can give comes from a Non Sequitur cartoon of a survivor and a small girl, Danae, sitting on a park bench. She notices the numbers tattooed on his arm, and asks about his, “boring tattoo… It’s just a line of numbers.”
“Well,” he answers, I was about your age when I got it, and I keep it as a reminder.”
“Oh,” Danae asks, “a reminder of happier days?”
“No,” he replies, “of a time when the world went mad.” And then he explains about the horror, as Danae imagines herself in a concentration camp.
She responds, with a tear rolling down her cheek, “So you keep it to remind yourself?”
“No, my darling,” he answers, “to remind you.”
Vickie and I do not have tattoos, but those we have seen on the arms of many of our parents’ friends are etched into our hearts. For the past five years we have spent between five and ten weeks per year in Germany where we teach about the Holocaust in German High Schools. We speak about her soon to be (God willing) 99-year old mother and my late father as among “the lucky ones.” They escaped the worst of the horror and came to this country and built meaningful lives here.
No, Vickie’s parents and my father were not, thank God, among the six million who perished, but they are among the many millions more whose lives and whose children’s lives carry the internal tattoo of memory.
So, I would answer the priest who inquired about our need to remember, “Memory is part of our DNA.”
The important question is: will we allow the memory to harbor hatred and resentment, or will we share our memories to work for reconciliation and harmony? Vickie and I choose to push back the darkness of our memories. We do so not to keep reminding ourselves, but to remind this and the next generation of Germans about the depths of brutality to which humans can descend.
I first heard the phrase, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” in a hit song, Dedicated to the One I Love from the early sixties by the Shirelles. A few years later the Mamas and the Papas also had a hit with that number.
Language historians trace the origin of the phrase to a 1651 travelogue chronicling the visit to Palestine of the English theologian, Thomas Fuller. He wrote: “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth.”
Since I first heard it as a teen, “The darkest hour is just before dawn,” has encouraged me to believe that if I keep pushing them away, whatever emotional clouds envelops me will soon lift. In Germany our aim is to help young people to push away their emotional darkness about the Holocaust.
Vickie and I hold dear the young man who came up to her after our presentation to a high school class in Kiel, and with tears in his eyes said, “Mrs. Fuchs I must apologize to you.”
“But you have nothing to apologize for,” she answered.”
“I must apologize because my grandfather was SS,” he answered.
Their embrace brought tears to my eyes.
We are grateful for the opportunities we have had to help people like this young man, push away their darkness.
In Germany we frequently say, “We cannot undo the past but the future is ours to shape.”
Holocaust Remembrance Day is more than a reminder of the past. It is to remind future generations to work to push back the dark clouds of antisemitism, bigotry and hatred and embrace the dawn — that can be just ahead — of harmony, understanding and love.