Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is critical. In a world so full of hatred and violence against Jews, philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s “614th mitzvah” to ensure Hitler never wins is more important than ever. He wrote:
“… we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.”
(To Mend the World, p. 213)
While some take issue with using the terminology of mitzvah in relation to specifically responding to the Holocaust, Fackenheim essentially reinforces important Jewish principles of memory, continuity, optimism, and Jewish pride. These are certainly critical tenets of our identity.
Often, on Yom HaShoah, we invoke the words, “Never forget.” It sometimes seems unnecessary. How can the world forget the atrocities of the Shoah? Maybe there are some ardent deniers, the insane, and anti-Semites who deny the Holocaust, but how can anybody forget?
A study commissioned last year by the Claims Conference found that 31% of all Americans and 41% of Millennials believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust. In addition, while there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, 45% of Americans cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials.
Obviously, these numbers are different in our community. At the same time, can we be so sure that we won’t forget even a little bit? The number of survivors is dwindling, and it seems that fewer and fewer communities can draw large crowds for Yom HaShoah events.
I believe that we need to place as much emphasis on Fackenheim’s second directive of his 614th commandment:
…to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish.
We need to find ways to actively remember and incorporate the memories and legacies of those who were murdered as well as those who survived into our very beings.
Never forget will never be enough. We need to actively, passionately, and forcefully remember.
“EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE GOING WELL, REMEMBER THE SHOAH” – Yaakov
The above message was crafted by Yaakov Weinberger, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who made his way to Israel. He posted this sign all over his city of Nahariya and was dedicated to disseminating this message to all. Yaakov believed it was forbidden to be silent, and he felt that it is not enough to “Never forget.” People must internalize the Shoah as part of their being and always – always – remember.
Yaakov Weinberger went even further to encourage people to remember. He and his wife legally changed their last name from Weinberger to Weinberger-HaShisha, explaining that “HaShisha” (the Six) was being added to “identify with the six million sacrifices of the Shoah.” From then on, any time someone was introduced to Yaakov, they would remember the legacy of the Shoah.
We must never forget. We must also always remember. We need to introduce the stories and lessons of the Holocaust into our everyday lives, our dinner table discussions, and, in particular, find ways to share these with those outside our immediate circle. Seek out the stories of survivors you know or explore the many stories available online. (See HERE for full length testimonies of survivors collected by the USC Shoah Foundation.)
One way to reinforce the need to remember and feel the urgency in sharing these stories is to see ourselves, in a way, as survivors.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau describes meeting NYC Mayor Ed Koch in the early 1980’s. (Out of the Depths, p. 241-242)
“…He is a warm Jew, sensitive and emotional, a great lover of Israel and the Jewish people. At our first meeting, he introduced himself to me and declared that he was also a Holocaust survivor. Out of politeness, I refrained from asking him what exactly he survived and where he had been during the Second World War. I wanted to give him a chance to tell his story himself. He said that he had been born in the Bronx and had lived his whole life in New York, but insisted that he was a real survivor. Smiling, I dared to ask how that could be – and Ed Koch began to explain.
Years earlier, he had traveled to Germany for an educational trip. At one of the stops, the guide showed the group the globe that had sat on Hitler’s desk. “It reminded me of Charlie Chaplain’s movie about the great dictator. But unlike the one in Chaplain’s movie,” Koch recounted, “that big globe had lots of numbers written on it in black marker…The guide explained that when World War II broke out, Hitler recorded the Jewish population of each country. After all, they represented his life’s goal. Albania, for example, bore the number 1 for the single Jew living there…The territory of the United States bore the number six million. That includes me,” said Ed Koch with undisguised anger. “So I am also a Holocaust survivor-if the Allies hadn’t stopped the Nazi beast, no doubt I would have been destroyed.”
I shook his hand warmly and said, “Today I have learned an important lesson from you, and I will carry it home with me to Israel. I’ve heard that not all Jewish communities feel a connection to Holocaust Day. From now on, I’ll tell them about the Jew born in New York who lived all his life in an American city, but who feels like a Holocaust survivor…”
Each of us is connected enough to the Holocaust so as to feel compelled to “Never forget” while, at same time, to “Always remember!”
This way, we can keep alive the memory of what happened while also incorporating the legacy of the Holocaust into a meaningful present and ensuring a vibrant future.