Today marks Yom HaShoah. The day the Israeli Knesset set aside, in 1959, to remember the Holocaust.
Setting aside one day, or one service for that matter, to remember six million souls and the countless more they would have fathered and mothered, and the many Jewish towns and villages erased from the map and the flourishing of Jewish culture that is no more, seems immeasurable when compared to the enormity of our loss. How can any gesture or ritual, song or remembrance capture so much destruction and loss?
Think about this. If one were to recite all six million names it would take nearly five months to read the list from start to finish, assuming no breaks for sleeping or eating or even pauses for taking a breath between names. (For the mathematicians among us, I am assuming it takes two seconds to read each name and that there are 31,536,000 seconds in a year.)
Now imagine this. Today the world’s Jewish population is approximately 15.2 million people. Prior to the start of World War II, our people’s population stood at 16.6 million. While we have recovered, and rebuilt, in untold, and unimaginable ways—American Jewry represents the most successful and creative diaspora community in our history and there is now of course a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel!—we have not replaced the numbers. We can never recover those who were lost.
Their numbers are lost forever to our people.
Had there not been a Holocaust the world’s Jewish population would be closer to 35 million souls. And it is impossible to calculate, or enumerate, what 20 million more Jews might mean to our people and the world. So how can one day encapsulate the loss? How can one hour begin to fathom the magnitude of our destruction? It reverberates still.
And yet remembrance is our task. The day demands rituals. It insists on solemnity and contemplation.
Are our observances and museums, songs and memorials, only about remembrance? Are they only about recalling these names and our pain from years past? I would like to believe they must reach beyond six million names. Rituals must do more than look backward. They must also look forward. Their purpose is not found in protecting memory alone but also about guaranteeing a better future.
And about this question, there is debate and controversy. What is the meaning of our remembrance of the Holocaust? Is it only about Jewish pain and suffering? Or must it also have universal import? Does “Never again” mean only to Jews or is it also about never again to anyone and anywhere?
Recently, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, asked to speak (virtually) at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum. He is not only a hero because of his leadership against Russia’s murderous tyranny, but also because he is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.
And yet the museum thought his appearance at Yad Vashem would be inappropriate. Time and again Ukraine’s president recalls the memory of the Holocaust when speaking about his nation’s current struggles. There is ample evidence to suggest that Vladimir Putin’s intentions are genocidal. He denies the existence of Ukraine and wishes to wipe it off the face of the map. Is this not the very definition of genocide? Still, Yad Vashem believes its mission is first and foremost the protection of the sanctity Jewish memory and the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
I wonder. Does protecting the memory of the Holocaust mean we have to rise up and fight against every instance when this word is used about someone else’s pain? Does remembering the Holocaust mean no one can claim this about their own suffering?
While I am sympathetic to historians’ convincing arguments, my heart shouts, “Why, in the face of someone else’s trauma and pain, must we argue, ‘Our pain and suffering was worse.’” I wish we could conjure generous magnanimity and say, “Let the memory of our pain inspire us to make sure that such murderous hatred does not keep happening again and again and does not happen today.”
I will tell you why. There are 20 million voices shouting louder.
And their absence drowns out everything else.