Last night, a diverse crowd filled the 2nd floor of New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life to capacity for a commemoration of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This May marks sixty-nine years that have passed since the end of the Holocaust, the horrific state-sponsored genocide which claimed the lives of nearly 11 million (6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, including many Christians, homosexuals, Gypsies, and disabled persons).
At NYU, where nearly 25% of the student body is Jewish, the horrors of the holocaust resonate deeply with many students. In the words of CAS Senior Joseph Katz, “The Holocaust has always been a huge part of my life. I have always been surrounded by Holocaust Survivors, in my Synagogue, and my close friends’ grandparents, everyone had accents and were survivors.”
The speaker of the evening was Dr. Moshe Avital, a survivor who described the Holocaust as “a dark cloud” that “descended over Europe.” His chilling account of his time in Buchenwald and concluding message of hope were truly inspirational. Dr. Avital made sure to remind us of the importance of remembering the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, both of which he described as essential to understanding Jewish identity.
As the years go by, the importance of remembering the Holocaust and preventing a similar tragedy does not diminish, but our immediate connection will. In the words of CAS Senior Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs, “My grandparents both went through the war, but when they came to America, they were determined not to let their past affect their future. That meant that they never talked about their Shoah stories until it was almost too late. I realized, as both they and I grew older, that if I didn’t extract their story, no matter how painful the telling would be, it would be lost forever.” Stern Junior Jeremy Rosh expressed similar sentiments, saying that “it is scary to think that within the next decade, there will be no survivors left to tell their story. It will be our generation’s responsibility to re-shape how to remember and learn from the Holocaust.”
As our generation picks up the challenge of making sure the world never forgets, we must keep in mind that our purpose is both to honor those who lost their lives, but also to make sure that an atrocity such as this never happen again. In the words of Gallatin Sophomore Atara Vogelstein, “It is crucial that we continue to tell the stories of those who were lost and those who survived, both to preserve their memories and to ensure that such atrocities never again sweep the face of mankind. In the Holocaust, we see the extremes of human nature; unless we can understand these tendencies, the pinnacle of evil will overshadow the most alarming courage.”
To turn to CAS Senior Joseph Katz once more, “In order to both prevent further anti-semitism, and hate of all kind, and in order to honor those who perished, we must commit ourselves to remembering the past, to honor[ing] it and to prevent[ing] atrocities in the future. The current fad of ambivalence and lack of activism against anti-Semitism is scary, and unfortunately mirrors that of what I have heard to have been the case in Europe in the years leading to Hitler’s rise to power, from survivors themselves.”
The overall consensus from those who attended the event was that we must be constantly mindful in working towards the greater good. As Dr. Avital reminded us, the Jewish people pride themselves as being “a people of chesed and Kedusah,” of kindness and holiness. As one student speaking anonymously reflected, “I was thinking during the speech today, we are so damn lucky, but what are we doing with this amazing gift we’ve been given, of being born 70 years later?”
Our incredible gift is not one we should ever take for granted. We must never tire in our vigilance towards combatting anti-semitism and injustice around the world. But when reflecting on the Holocaust nearly seven decades later, one finds great cause for hope. Even though anti-semitism indubitably rears its ugly head from time to time, including a horrific shooting by an anti-semitic white supremacist which resulted in the tragic death of three Christians visiting a Jewish Center in my home state of Missouri this month, we are privileged to live in an era when Jews by and large can live as Jews without fear. In the words of Stern Sophomore Rachel Millhauser, “today is also important because it is a day to celebrate the heroes that arose amidst that dark time and reflect on what it means to still be here and be Jewish today. On a day like this, I feel so blessed to be able to walk the streets with my Star of David on my neck and not feel afraid. At the same time, I remember that the fight is not over. We must continue to stand up for religious freedom and work towards a more accepting, peaceful future.”
In the words of Holocaust survivor and and political activist Ellie Wiesel, who lived in the same children’s home in Buchenwald as Dr. Avital, “For the living and the dead, we must bear witness.” We must never forget the tragedy that occurred, and must never stop fighting against injustice and hatred everywhere.