In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Words cannot properly convey the horrors and tragedies of the Shoah. Six million Jews were murdered at the hands of the Nazis, over one million of them at Auschwitz. Entire Jewish communities across Europe were destroyed. The future of the Jewish people was forever changed.
This past summer I participated in the Canadian Young Judaea trip to Poland and Israel. While in Poland, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek and Plaszow. I was also fortunate to see firsthand where the Warsaw and Krakow Ghettos were located. Visiting all of the sites in Poland was a moving experience like no other but I would like to focus specifically on my visit to Auschwitz.
The day began early in the morning at Auschwitz I, going from building to building, looking at the objects and pictures left behind by those who were murdered there. Seeing the piles of hair, shoes, glasses, briefcases and Tallit gave me a sense of the enormity of the Camp. Afterwards, we entered Birkenau. There are no words to describe what I saw. After going through the gate I was struck by what looked like miles and miles with no end of barracks and barbed wire. We saw where gas chambers and crematoriums were located in the Death Camp. At the end of our visit, we came across a pond and learned that this was a site where the ashes of Jews were thrown into. I stood over this pond in great sadness and dismay. How can human beings be capable of committing such acts of evil against fellow human beings? The sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the fact that over one million Jews perished here will always be with me. I put on my Tefillin and recited El Malei Rachamim, a prayer traditionally recited at a gravesite.
Learning about Jewish history and Holocaust education has been an integral part of my upbringing. I am a proud Jew and have been fortunate to attend Hebrew day school and practice and follow Jewish traditions and customs with my family. As the great-grandson of four Holocaust survivors, three of whom I have met in my lifetime, I learned about their heroic stories of survival during the Shoah after losing their families. I know how my great-grandparents from Lithuania were sent to several Nazi camps from the Vilna Ghetto including Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. I know how my other great-grandparents from Poland were saved by a righteous Polish family that hid them in a barn along with other Jews.
As January 27th was approaching, I began to reflect on my trip to Poland, and the places I visited in the summer. I asked myself this question: where is the world now, 78 years after Auschwitz was liberated?
On one hand, we have come a very long way. The State of Israel was created three years after the War. Over the course of the past several decades, Jewish people in Israel and across the Diaspora have contributed to the world in humanitarianism, medicine, technology, law, politics, education, and in countless other fields. We built, expanded and strengthened Jewish communities around the world. We continue to be a light unto the nations striving to do Tikkun Olam.
On the other hand, however, antisemitism still rears its ugly head in all places in the world and remains a grave threat to global Jewry. It is often said that antisemitism is the world’s oldest disease. It did not start with, nor did it end with the Holocaust, and in recent years, it appears to have become a normalized aspect of society.
I will always remember where I was when I heard the news that 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat in Pittsburgh in 2018, or when the news broke that there was a shooting at a Chabad in Poway, California over Passover in 2019. On January 15, 2022, a terrorist entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas and held the rabbi and congregants hostage. Last year in public schools across Toronto, where I live, there have been a number of incidents of students doing the Nazi salute in front of their Jewish classmates and teachers, as well as antisemitic graffiti appearing on school grounds. Throughout the pandemic, people compared public safety measures such as vaccines and wearing masks to Nazis forcing Jews to wear the yellow Star of David. Recently popular rapper Kanye West has distorted the truth of the Holocaust and has shared his antisemitic views. Over this past Shabbat in Jerusalem, there was another attack at a synagogue. We also continue to see incidents of antisemitism on college and university campuses around the world and sadly often without consequence. The list goes on.
Has the world not learned its lesson about what hate can lead to? The fact is that antisemitism regardless of form is wrong. Never again does not mean never again sometimes, it means never again always.
However, there is hope 78 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. I am here, as the great-grandson of Holocaust survivors and as a proud Jew. In the face of adversity, the Jewish people remain resilient, united and strong.
This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 78 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, may we pledge to never forget the six million Jews who perished during the Shoah.
May we never forget the Jewish culture and communities across Europe which were completely decimated.
May we pledge to remain unwavering in our fight against antisemitism, wherever, whenever, and however it arises.
And may we vow, today and forever: never again.