Unless you’ve actually been there, you may not be able to grasp the power of the experience. At 10:00am on the morning of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a siren blasts its way through Israel. Radios in stores are turned off; people stop dead in their tracks; traffic comes to a halt as drivers open their doors and stand motionless in the streets. Diners at outdoor cafes rise from their seats. Everything pauses in honorable tribute for those who were lost during the Holocaust.
The intensity within the next two minutes is without proper explanation. There is so much feeling in the blast of sound and, yet, within the overwhelming emotion, we know we have not fully grasped its intention. How could we? Unless we were there.
The last generations of Holocaust survivors are nearing the end of their lives. There remains a hefty responsibility to preserve the dignity of those who survived and those who perished in the Holocaust. There is little else in history that has such fierce denial attached to it. Their stories must be protected; their horrific experiences must be communicated, if only for the purpose of ensuring the Holocaust doesn’t become a moment briefly mentioned in history books.
We are liable to future generations who must learn its lessons, who must be motivated to prevent something like that from happening again, and who must help stop other Holocausts which are going on right now. It is our responsibility to teach future generations the consequences of destructive hatred and baseless racism, to impart a sense of responsibility for others within and out of our immediate communities, and to help create compassionate, aware and educated human beings.
There are little things we can do to pay tribute during Yom HaShoah. Find an event in your community by contacting the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Center or the Bureau for Jewish Education. There are memorials, movie showings and name readings throughout the country. Create an event with your friends. Rent Shindler’s List, or read an essay from The Triumphant Spirit: Portraits and Stories of Holocaust Survivors… Their Messages of Hope and Compassion. Even young children take part in a mark of respect. Pick an activity that makes you feel proud to be Jewish. Visit the elderly with some homemade cookies. Clean up the property at your local synagogue. Talk to your own relatives about their Jewish journey.
In 1996, I was in Israel during Yom HaShoah. I sat with a group of friends in the dark – each of us with a candle shining brightly. The organizers of the group read a poem and then quoted the number of people who perished at specific places during the Holocaust. After each individual spoke, he or she blew out a candle until we sat with only one remaining candle in the center of the circle. In the darkness, a tape began to play, reciting the names of those who had perished during the war. Soon, one of my friends moved from her place to the center of the room and relit her candle, stating her name and date of birth. One by one, everyone in the circle followed, until the candles were all lit again.
We cannot possibly begin to comprehend why something like the Holocaust happens. But we can take the darkness that was left and light a candle in it.
Several years ago, I discovered the book The Triumphant Spirit (mentioned above). It is filled with stories from Holocaust survivors, recounting their own triumphant struggles. It is a book well worth the read.