Universal Lessons of the Holocaust

This Sunday evening marks the beginning of the Yom HaShoah commemoration. A time when people around the world remember the six million Jews and millions of others who perished in the Holocaust. As Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel stated, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

Last year, I read an article by Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and emeritus professor of law at McGill University, that struck me deeply. In fact, I saved it so I could share it (abbreviated version) this year because his words are more powerful than anything I could write.

When writing on the Holocaust, I am reminded of the early teachings of my parents – the profundity and pain of which I realized only years later – that there are things in Jewish history – in human history – too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.

What have we learned, and what must we do?

The first lesson is the importance of zachor, of remembrance itself. For as we remember the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah – defamed, demonized and dehumanized, as prologue or justification for genocide – we have to understand that the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of non-Jews, is not a matter of abstract statistics.

For unto each person there is a name, an identity; each person is a universe. As our sages tell us, “whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.” Conversely, whoever has killed a person, it is as if they have killed an entire universe. Thus, the abiding imperative: we are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.

The second enduring lesson of the Holocaust is that the genocide of European Jewry succeeded not only because of the industry of death and the technology of terror, but because of the state-sanctioned ideology of hate. This teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins.

The third lesson is that these Holocaust crimes resulted not only from state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide, but from crimes of indifference, from conspiracies of silence – of the international community as bystander.

As it happens, Holocaust Remembrance Day is close in date to the annual April 7 remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide, where close to one million Rwandans were murdered. What makes the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is not only the horrors of the genocide itself, but that this genocide was preventable. No one can say that we did not know. We knew, but we did not act.

Today, we know but have yet to act to stop the slaughter of civilians in Syria, ignoring the lessons of history and mocking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Let there be no mistake about it: Indifference and inaction always mean coming down on the side of the victimizer, never the victim. Let there be no mistake: indifference in the face of evil is acquiescence with evil itself; it is complicity with evil.

It is our responsibility, then, to speak truth to power, and to hold power accountable to truth; and to ensure that the double entendre of Nuremberg – of the Nuremberg Laws that enshrined racism as well as the Nuremberg Principles that laid the ground for prosecuting war crimes – are part of our learning and our legacy; and that Holocaust education underpins these perspectives as it informs our principles on justice and injustice.

It is our responsibility, then, as citoyens du monde to give voice to the voiceless, to empower the powerless, be they the disabled, poor, elderly, women victims of violence, or the vulnerable child – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

We must pay tribute to the rescuers – the righteous among the nations.

Finally, we must remember – and celebrate – the survivors of the Holocaust – the true heroes of humanity. For they witnessed and endured the worst of inhumanity, but somehow found, in the depths of their own humanity, the courage to go on, to rebuild their lives as they helped build our communities.

And so, together with them we must remember – and pledge – that never again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate; never again will we be silent in the face of evil; never again will we indulge racism and anti-Semitism; never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; and never again will we be indifferent in the face of mass atrocity and impunity.

This weekend, our Jewish community will have special opportunities to remember, as well as to perpetuate lessons learned from the Holocaust. The Oregon Holocaust Resource Center is presenting Reshaping the World After the Holocaust: A Weekend of Learning with renowned Jewish-Christian and Holocaust scholar Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and noted Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg. It is truly an honor and privilege to welcome the Greenbergs to our community for a full weekend of activities. I hope you will come…listen…learn…and most importantly, remember.

Shabbat shalom.


PS – This past Tuesday evening, 57 central coast residents enjoyed a meaningful Seder, coordinated by Representative David Gomberg and officiated by Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward. The Seder was co-sponsored by B’nai B’rith Camp and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. We are delighted that members of our community living on the coast were able to gather together and share such a haimisha evening.


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