Honoring Heroes on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today's Jews are standing on the shoulders of giants who led the way. We must not merely remember their suffering but be worthy of the inheritance of their heroism.

Published originally in Haaretz, we are republishing this piece in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2019

As the years pass and the numbers of Survivors who walk amongst us diminishes, the responsibility to remember and to remind others to remember has passed on to the next generation. How are we going to fulfill this responsibility? What are we going to remember? What are we going to commemorate?

We can remember that the world was and potentially is a dangerous place for the Jews, with the Holocaust being the perennial reminder of the words of the prophet, Bilaam: “They (Israel) are a people who lives apart.” We make pilgrimage to Auschwitz and Yad Vashem to help commemorate and sustain this memory. They tell the story and command us, “Never to forget.”

We can remember and bear witness to the evil to which the human being is capable. Only a world with the courage to remember has a chance of avoiding a similar failure. We don’t want to see evil and to recognize our potential for it. We want the Nazi criminals to quickly die, so they can be relegated to the domain of an aberrational phenomenon. Again, we make pilgrimage to Auschwitz, Yad Vashem, and the Holocaust Memorial in Washington to remember and not forget.

In Hebrew, Holocaust Remembrance Day is called “Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Velag’vurah,” literally, “A Day of Remembrance to the Holocaust and Heroism.” In the thinking of the founders of Israel who chose the name, they wanted to ensure that we remembered not only the Jew as victim but also the Jew as courageous hero who fought the Nazi war machine against impossible odds.

As the years pass and whether we like it or not, the horrors of the Holocaust fade and become a more distant memory, I too find myself connecting more and more to the memory of the hero. These heroes, however, are not the partisans. My hero is the young man or woman whose spouse, parents, and children were murdered before their eyes. Who survived the horrors of the concentration camp with memories and experiences unspeakable and unimaginable. Who exited the gates of death and still had the courage to fall in love, have children, and begin to live again. For this memory I don’t need a museum or have to travel on an airplane. While decreasing in numbers, they still walk amongst us. They are our or our friends’ parents or grandparents, our neighbors, members of our community, or strangers we pass on the street.

When I see them, I often imagine what I would have done. It seems to me that the most appropriate response should have been to move to Antarctica, as far away from human beings and life as possible, and to await a death which had so far eluded me. This was not, however, the path of our people, the true heroes of the Holocaust. With shattered bones and broken spirits they began to live bifurcated lives divided between the memory of their horror and the small space they created into which they would not let the horror enter. In that small space they began to plant both a new life for themselves and most importantly a new life for our people.

They set a new standard and meaning for what it means to be a Jew: the courage to never give up, the courage to never stop believing, the courage to forever be willing to begin again. In this space, these heroes shunned pessimism and fatalism and forced hope into their lives.

We, the next generations of Jews, who walk in the world with pride and dignity and who have achieved many successes, are standing on their shoulders. They are the giants who have led the way. It is our responsibility to not merely remember their suffering but to be worthy of the inheritance of their heroism.

When we build a Jewish society filled with hope, optimism, values, and promise, we are honoring them. When we are the perennial enemies of evil who refuse to allow the dark side to either rule our lives or define our reality, we are honoring them. When we are a force for life and decency and always believe that tomorrow will be better than today, because we will do our share to ensure that it is indeed better, we are honoring them.

These heroes have asked very little of us. It is time for us to recognize that we owe them everything.

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