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Remember This Date

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27th was chosen by the United Nations, in 2005 by the way, because it was on this day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. 

On January 27, 1945, the international community brought the horrors of the Holocaust to an end. That of course is not entirely true. It took nearly three more, grueling and deadly months before all the camps were liberated. It was not until May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated and in fact not until the following day that the last camp was liberated. And yet Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the massiveness of the destruction of European Jewry and the evil of the Nazis. It was there that one million Jews were murdered. Still, I think January 27th was chosen because it represents the day the world defeated the Nazi death machine.

Likewise, Israel’s Knesset chose the 27th of Nisan because it is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is the day when Jews revolted against their Nazi oppressors. The small ragtag group of Jewish fighters held off the Nazi army longer than the Polish army was able to. It was a remarkable feat and one that continues to inspire Israel’s sense that it, and it alone, can protect Jewish lives. And no matter how small we may appear even when standing before armies with far larger numbers, we will triumph. The Knesset debated other dates—some thought Tisha B’Av would be better when every tragedy seemed to happen to us—but ultimately the 27th of Nisan was chosen in 1959. It is the day when we, as a synagogue community, remember the Holocaust.

We need such days to remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust. They remind us that the Holocaust was singular in its evil. In an age when people conjure up Holocaust comparisons to such things as mask or vaccine mandates, we really need such days. And yet no perfect day can encapsulate the evils and horrors of the Holocaust.

I have been reflecting on these days when the Jewish community and the international community focus on Holocaust remembrance and education. It seems to me that there is a danger that both days might commemorate the wrong thing. Let me explain. While January 27th does acknowledge the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, it begs the question of how this was allowed to go on for so long. Despite the denials in the face of overwhelming evidence, 1945 is years after the world knew what was happening.

Perhaps November 9th would be a better day to commemorate the Holocaust. On this date in 1938 the world saw Kristallnacht. Photographs of burning synagogues appeared in newspapers. It should have been clear what the Nazis intended on November 9, 1938. I recognize that hindsight is crystal clear, but commemoration days are exactly that. They should say on that day we should have really known. We prefer instead to seize on a semblance of victory rather than missed opportunities.

Another date that occurs to me is January 20th. It was on this day in 1942 that Nazi leaders attended a small get together in Wannsee, Germany. While the world only found out about this event years later this occasion represents more than anything else the evil designs of Nazism. It was there in Wannsee that Nazi leaders gathered at a beautiful villa. They ate their meals on beautiful crystal and china, dined on delicious food and expensive wine all while discussing the final solution and the creation of the very camps that January 27th commemorated liberating. I still find this conference difficult to imagine. People discussed the murder of millions human beings as if it was only about how fast they can build factories and how efficiently they could transport goods and supplies over vast distances. Remember January 20th. Recall how callous, and indifferent, people can be as they chitchat and dine on fine china.

And yet, if international leaders would have consulted me, I would have said the date really should be June 6th. This is the day that the SS St Louis was turned back to Europe. The St Louis was a ship that sailed from Germany in May 1939 with some 900 Jewish refugees. It sailed to Havana, but Cuba denied entry. Despite Jewish leaders advocating for their admission, the United States also denied the refugees entry. And so, on June 6th the ship turned back to Europe. Great Britain admitted some 300 Jewish immigrants. Almost all survived the war. Of the remaining 600, approximately 350 survived the war or found other ways to flee Europe. Approximately 250 died in the Holocaust.

This date is not about those 250 Jews, and I recall it not as a condemnation of our own country, but instead to highlight the world’s indifference. Newspapers covered the story of the SS St Louis and shared details about the journey, but the world did not care. And Nazi leaders took note of this indifference. And the reason that the Holocaust happened was not so much about what a few Nazi leaders did at a villa in the German countryside, or what they perpetrated at those camps, but about what the world did not do when it could have done so much more.

Evil achieves its nefarious ends when good people turn away and say things like, “I’m too busy.” Or “Why should I help them?” Or even more likely, “I can’t help everyone.” Remember June 6th. Hold it up as a reminder that we can always do more and that we should always do more.

Of course, it is more comfortable marking the Holocaust on the 27th of Nisan and January 27th. We triumphed. We were victorious. That is not the most important message the Holocaust calls us to remember. It is instead that far too frequently we choose to remain silent.

Most people were not members of the SS. They were not those who carried out the evil deeds at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most were not as well soldiers who fought and died to defeat the Nazis. Most people, especially those in the United States, just read their morning paper while eating their breakfast. They just carried on with their everyday. Perhaps they worried about soldiers they knew, or family members still trapped in Europe. But on most days, the fate of the Jews was a distant problem. The horrors that other people experienced were too far away and too far removed to occupy their attention.

June 6th is when the world effectively said, “We don’t care.” Perhaps, I admit, it would be too painful a day to remember the Holocaust. But it most certainly would be a day that reminds us to take “Never again” truly to heart.