I grew up in Australia, where most of my friends’ parents were survivors of the Shoah. As a young child in Melbourne, I often wondered why other parents had numbers on their arms and mine didn’t. I felt that perhaps we had been excluded from an important club. Of course, it was a secret club. Nobody talked about it.
My first exposure to the horrors of the Shoah was when I was 12 years old. A history teacher was absent and the teacher sent to replace her was obviously angry about having to teach an additional class. He came into the room and threw a pile of World War II magazines (yes, that was a popular series) onto a table. He told each of us to take one and summarise the contents.
I was the only Jew in the class. I picked up the issue on Auschwitz.
I didn’t know what do to with what I learnt that day. I went home and read the only book on the bookshelves that my mother forbade me to read: Gerda Klein’s, “My Tortured Years.”
That episode was one of the factors that led me along my career path to learn and to teach Jewish history.
I have tried to learn from the Shoah. It is not just another event in history; it is a turning-point in Jewish history of global significance.
The Shoah teaches us the immense historical significance of our return home to Israel, to safety. Sadly, we also learn about the persistence of antisemitism against all rational discussions and arguments.
Studying the Shoah shows us how very easy it is for evil to prevail. We need to be vigilant at all times against the rise of evil, which can begin so subtly that we do not notice. (Today I am more conscious than ever that dictators can begin their rise to power abusing and then undermining the mechanisms of democracy).
We see that words matter, that language matters, that slogans become calls to action. We discover (if we didn’t already know it) that even good people can be manipulated into behaving in evil ways through simple words. We are reminded that a lie repeated often enough becomes believable.
I have come to appreciate the heroism of victims, survivors and rescuers at the darkest times, staring in the face of pure evil.
The Shoah teaches us about the miracle of Jewish survival after so many experiences of evil regimes trying to exterminate us. Our survival is because we have a purpose on earth – a mission.
Every Jew is told to see her/himself as if we were taken out of Egypt. We are commanded that we must treat the stranger well, because we were slaves in Egypt. Now, since the Shoah, every Jew must see her/himself as if we have survived that, too, for a purpose. We have a lesson to teach the world.
Today, like so many others, I am echoing the slogan “Never again.”
“Never again” to the Shoah – the slaughter of six million for the “crime” of being Jewish;
“Never again” to the murder of children;
“Never again” to the ascent to power of evil and the evil manipulation of whole populations;
“Never again” to fanatical hatred;
“Never again” to propaganda, to the creation of myths and slogans that dehumanise whole groups of people on the basis of their religion, race, gender or any other factor;
“Never again” to racism;
“Never again” to ignoring racism and pretending that it is others and not us.
The lessons of Egypt and the Exodus were not just about us; they were about how we were to relate to all of humanity. “Never again” is not just about us; it is about how we relate to all of humanity.