A Need to Remember What We’d Rather Forget

Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the world recently observed  forces us to confront what we would rather forget: the tragedy our people endured during World War II.

The number most people associate with the Holocaust is six million. That, of course is the number of Jews who perished due to Hitler’s madness in the years leading to 1945.

For me, though, other numbers are more telling. They are 1/3, 2/3 and 4/5. When I hear people compare other human tragedies to the Holocaust, I am convinced it is because they don’t understand these numbers.

Of the Jews in the world who were alive in 1935,  1/3 were dead because of Hitler by 1945. Among the Jews in Europe, the largest, most advanced community of Jews the world had ever known, 2/3’s perished. 4/5’s of Europe’s rabbis and communal leaders died at the hands of the Nazis. When another catastrophe of human failure approaches those numbers, then and only then will comparisons with the Holocaust be appropriate.

We owe it to those who died never to forget them nor to forget the depths of depravity to which human beings can descend. But if our commemorations on Holocaust Remembrance Day focus only on the sorrows of the past, we waste our time and our tears.

The Holocaust reminds us, as Deuteronomy (22:3) proclaims: “Lo too-chal l’heet-ah a lame!”, “You must not remain indifferent!”

As Jews  we must not remain indifferent to the suffering of anyone anywhere. After all, at the beginning of the Book of Genesis God told Cain, as God tells each of us: We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers!

One appropriate focus on this day is the example of Righteous Gentiles who risked their safety and their lives to save Jews during that horrible period. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner told the story of a German gentile man sitting on a bus next to a Jewish woman whom he had never met. A Nazi officer boarded the bus to check the passports of those who were riding and to arrest any Jews among them. Seeing the fear in the woman’s eyes the man knew she was Jewish. Suddenly, the gentile began shouting and cursing at her. When the Nazi rushed over to see what the commotion was, the man looked up calmly, handed the Nazi his Aryan passport and said, “I’m sorry officer, but my stupid wife has forgotten her passport again even though I have told her 100 times to remember it when she leaves the house.” The Nazi simply nodded and went on to the next passenger.

Hopefully, true stories like this inspire us to seek out and seize opportunities that present themselves to us to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Our primary mandate as Jews is to use our talents and abilities לתקו את העולם, to make this world a better place than it is now. The most meaningful Holocaust Remembrances then, begin with a sorrowful reflection on the past but hopefully look to the future and end with a resolve to leave a more just, caring and compassionate world for our children, grandchildren and all the generations to follow.