The other day I saw one of the most terrifying images I have ever seen.
It was an image that invoked anger and sadness and fear – an image of absolute hopelessness and absolute cruelty and absolute depravity.
It was a photo taken in 1941 during the Lviv pogram in the Ukraine where Ukrainian locals launched an attack on the Jewish community, murdering thousands. Jews were forcibly taken from their homes and made to clean the streets on their hands and feet while the gentiles surrounded them and laughed.
Jewish women in particular were singled out for humiliation, stripped naked and beaten and tortured, suffering both physical beatings and sexual abuse.
In this photo – this harrowing and haunting photo – a mother is trying desperately to protect her daughter – a girl who looks to be just a teenager, but the mother’s efforts are in vain. Because surrounding them is a mob who stare on without compassion, without remorse, without empathy, without any of those feelings that make us human – except one – absolute hatred. And this girl – this young girl, her clothes ripped off – is staring at the camera with a look of fear and confusion and horror with her arm stretched out and her hand open wide, asking… will no one help me?
But no one did help her, and even as she begged and pleaded for her life – she was greeted not just with silence but laughter and cruelty.
And just as no one helped her, no one helped the many other Jews whose images are also frozen in time, their eyes pleading in desperation.
There is the image of children – children – chasing naked Jewish women in the streets with sticks, beating them even as these poor women are screaming in fear. There is the image of a young man in a suit – a respectable looking man as you’d see in any city today – kicking a defenceless Jewish man in the back as he is crouched on the street.
Each image will break your heart and shatter your soul and invoke tears of sadness and cries of anger.
And they should.
For these are just images of an historical event. There are not just photos gathering on a dusty shelf in an old library. These are not just some academic research projects or psychological studies into the nature of human beings.
These are our uncles and our aunts. Our grandfathers and grandmothers. These are our sisters and our brothers and our cousins. These are our friends. They wanted our help, but we couldn’t help them then.
Their physical bodies may be gone – long gone – from this earth, but their memories need to live on. And what we couldn’t do then, we can do now.
Yom Hashoah is the day when Jewish people remember all of us whose lives were ripped from the earth in the most cruel and horrific of ways, where our pleas went unanswered and our cries ignored. It is the time where the Jewish people needed the world, but the world chose to turn their back on us – in our most desperate hour.
Now there are those who sometimes say we need to stop focussing on the tragedy of the holocaust and rejoice in our rebirthed country of Israel.
The truth is that we need both. We need to remember the past, because all we are today is a result of all we were before. But we also need to remember the triumphs of our people, because although our history is often riddled with unbelievable tragic events, it is also full of unbelievable triumphs as well.
The price of our existence in this world today – an existence almost 4000 years old – is eternal vigilance. It is to be on guard always against those who wish to remove us from the pages of history and blot out our name from time itself.
For us, the Shoah is not an event of the past – it is a current event – a warning of what happens if we do not maintain vigilance. And today, we only need to witness the unrelenting re-emergence of antisemitism to understand that history is not always in the past.
The number of Jews who were murdered during that time is hard to fathom – it’s hard to understand how societies turned on such a small group of people who had lived among them for many years. It is hard to understand how an entire country waged war against a tiny group. It’s hard to understand how communities of simple people often became communities of mass murderers.
So sometimes we need to focus on just one person, like this girl I saw in the picture who held out her hand in desperation.
She was a person who had hopes and dreams, friends and family, goals and ambitions. Who knows what works and contributions she could have made to a world that rejected her. Who knows what warmth she could have brought to the coldness of the world around her?
So we say today – as we say all days – we will remember her, and we will embrace her memory, and we will never become a people who will allow those memories to diminish or to be vanquished or to be cast off into a dark night in which no light can escape.
The Jewish people are living in the greatest moment of our history, where we have our own beloved country that is strong and powerful infused with a vision and a destiny so that whenever a fellow Jew cries out in desperation, the response will not be silence anymore.