One Question Changed Everything

Wednesday night and yesterday, Jewish communities around the world commemorated Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, honoring the memories of the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers. Yom HaShoah was signed into law in Israel in 1953 by then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben Zvi, thus becoming a national holiday for the Jewish state. (Interestingly, many wanted the holiday to fall on the 14 of Nisan, which would mark the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Since the 14 is the day before Passover begins, the 27 of Nisan was selected, as it still fell within the time frame of the uprising but did not interfere with any other holidays.)

Yom HaShoah is a day I struggle with. It is a somber day, one where so many of us ask the questions “Why?” and “How?” At the same time, I was born in 1969. I grew up in Orlando, not a place like New York or Skokie where many survivors settled. Thankfully, I had no family members who perished in the Holocaust. And, I am part of a generation where the Holocaust does not define my Jewish self. But one experience – actually one question – changed my whole thinking that sits with me until this very day.

In 1993, while in graduate school, I made my third trip to Israel. While there we visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. For our tour, we were joined by renowned Holocaust educator, Rachel Korazim. I remember standing at the entrance to Yad Vashem when she asked the group, “How many Jews died in the Holocaust.” Quickly the group responded, “Six million.” And then she asked, “Please, can you tell me the names of some of the victims?” I have to admit, I was stumped. Moreover, I was ashamed. I knew no names other than Anne Frank. In fact, in my group, we maybe came up with ten names in total. And that was almost 20 years ago. I wonder how many names a group of teens and college students would be able to share today?

That one question – that one moment in time -- is when I truly understood that the Holocaust was not about a number – the Holocaust was about 6,000,000 individuals -- mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children – each with his/her own name and personal story.

On Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to learn many of the names of victims – sadly, children’s names. I participated in the Oregon Area Jewish Committee and the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center’s annual, Unto Every Person There is a Name program, where throughout the day names are read at Pioneer Place. This is a very emotional experience for me – I, along with other volunteers, publicly read the names and ages of children so we never forget. As a father of two children of similar age to many of the names I recited, I get angrier and angrier. Who does this to children? And what great accomplishments could each of those children done for the world?

Now, some 67 years after the war, we are watching many incredible people who can provide firsthand accounts about their horrific experiences pass away. It is sad to think that the children of today are most likely the last generation that will be able to say they personally knew individuals who experienced the Holocaust. Will the next generation know their own family story as it relates to the Holocaust? Will they watch video testimonials of survivors, even those of their own relatives? Will they truly understand the impact the Holocaust had on the Jewish people? Will future generations even learn about the Holocaust?  

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartmann Institute of North America, recently wrote, “Making meaning of the past and the Holocaust in particular, may be the defining struggle of this generation. Up to now, making meaning from the Holocaust has been exclusively the right of survivors.”

What must we do going forward? As second generation Holocaust survivor Phil Rosen wrote in an editorial printed in many Jewish newspapers this week, “Let’s care about our brethren. Care about those that are suffering. Don’t ever let ourselves be silent. And don’t ever forget.”

Our community should be proud that Jewish Family and Child Service is currently providing 112 Holocaust survivors in Portland with homemaker services, case management, reparations assistance, emergency financial assistance, and social/recreational programming through its Café Europa. JF&CS is the recipient of a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) for over $300,000, which requires matching funds from the community, to ensure that these seniors have the highest degree of dignity and quality of life. In addition, multiple other Jewish agencies in town are doing their part for this population.

Our community does care. Our community will not be silent. And our community will never forget!

Shabbat shalom.


PS – Please join the community next week at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center on April 24 at 8:00 p.m. for Yom HaZikaron, Day of Remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers. Then, on April 25, starting at 5:30 p.m., join the community for a fun-filled celebration for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. A band from the Israel Defense Force is coming to play and the evening is geared for people of all ages.


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