At sundown on Monday, Jews around the world will light a memorial candle in their home in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. So many of us, especially those of Ashkenazi [Eastern European] Jewish heritage, lost family members during those terrible years of what Hitler chillingly labeled “The Final Solution.”
There are fewer and fewer people within the U.S. population who have any personal memory of the years leading up to WW2, the war years, and the aftermath of that time. Hate groups are telling adherents that the Holocaust never happened, that it was all made up by the Jews. Hate crimes of all kinds have greatly increased in the past three years. Houses of worship of all denominations have had to hire security guards, install security cameras, lock their doors. Buildings have been defaced, cemeteries and school buildings vandalized. People have been attacked, bullied and stalked online and in the world of physical reality based on their religion, physical appearance, political views, cultural heritage, and place of origin.
As the years roll by, there are fewer people left to give first-hand testimony of their experience during the Holocaust. Now we are hearing from more and more children of Holocaust survivors, recalling their parents’ experiences and also telling of their own as children of survivors. Every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knesseth Israel Synagogue holds a memorial observance for everyone in our community to revisit the Holocaust, to remember those who perished, and to look toward making a better future for all of us. This year for the first time, we are not able to do this because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The synagogue has been closed since March 16 and will remain so until further notice. However, the need for Holocaust remembrance remains.
What can you do to make Yom HaShoah a significant day? There will doubtless be video observances livestreamed, history programs shown on television. You can light a candle on Monday evening and say a short prayer in memory of all those who died in the Holocaust, which included not only Jews, but also the physically and mentally disabled, political prisoners, members of the Roma people, LGBTQ people, and other groups deemed by the Third Reich to be of “impure blood” and therefore a threat to “national purity.”
You can resolve to support the sanctity of life everywhere and the right of all oppressed peoples to live and to be free. You can talk to anyone you may know whose families were affected in some way by the Holocaust and its aftermath and ask them to tell you the family story. You may be surprised at what you hear and how it affected the future generations of that family. You can watch streamed movies about the Holocaust. There are many on Amazon Prime and some on Netflix. I would recommend Denial, a true story about Holocaust denial in the UK and the courageous academic who fought back against it. It is suitable for high school students as well as adults.
The Holocaust was one terrible, awful, unimaginable genocide. But it was not the first, and it was not the last. Unless the world unites to fight against the unspeakable cruelty of human beings to each other, there will be others. Each genocide is different, yet the torture and murder of victims based solely on their social or biological group is a feature of all genocides. Leviticus 19:18 says: V’ahavtah l’reiachah kamocha. You shall love each other person like yourself. This verse puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of each individual.
I would like to thank all of you who have joined the Knesseth Israel Synagogue Congregation over the years at our Yom HaShoah Program. Your presence has been greatly welcomed and appreciated. We hope to see you at Knesseth Israel Synagogue on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 at 7 p.m. Our featured speaker will be a member of our congregation who is the child of two Holocaust survivors.
May it be that the pandemic that has so changed all of our lives will bring us even closer together and teach us important new lessons in personal responsibility, societal cooperation, and mutual respect. And may you and yours be well in all ways.
Suzanne J Schermerhorn is the Spiritual Lay Leader at the Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville.