One of the pillars of Israel’s faith is the belief that people’s actions are observed and recorded by God in a Book of Remembrance (Malachi 3:16). Nothing is hidden from God’s vision. In our earthly existence, we regularly see that the actions carried out by each individual have consequences for better or worse. Parts of the Bible declare that malicious people and those who blindly follow them end up destroying themselves, while those who acted with justice and mercy will forever be remembered and their good works will echo down the centuries forever (Psalm 1). Other parts of the Bible are less hopeful, at least temporarily bemoaning the prosperity of the wicked (Psalm 73).
I believe that God’s activity in human history can be seen when great and oppressive empires collapse and when their tyrannical rulers who demanded idolatrous subservience are brought low. One by one they have vanished, from the empires of antiquity to Nazi Germany with its fevered dream of a thousand-year reich. Although past regimes that aspired to almighty power fell, the memory of their deeds must be preserved in human hearts. God requires us to remember the past and to understand our existence in light of it (cf. Deuteronomy 32:7).
Seventy-seven years ago, on January 27, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by Soviet troops. It was the largest of the extermination camps that the Nazis and their acolytes had erected to annihilate all those they considered harmful to the Aryan “race” and its supposed destiny to rule the world. Of the 1,100,000 people who were exterminated there, 90% were Jews. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated that January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, be memorialized as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In Deuteronomy 25:17, God commands the people of Israel to remember forever the actions of the Amalekites who attacked them when they were weak and vulnerable following their escape from slavery (Exodus 17:8-16). Preserving the memory of such assaults warns us not to become complacent, to think that something like this could not happen again, or to imagine, “this is not going to happen to me.” We must not forget the horrific depths to which the human mind can descend and so not allow ourselves to fall prey to our own inner demons or to succumb to the charism and appeal of any despotic and malevolent leader.
On April 30, 1943, while the Warsaw ghetto uprising was taking place, and the horrific massacres of Jews in Europe were becoming known, the famous Israeli poet Abraham Shlonsky published his poem “The Vow” in the newspaper Haaretz. In it he movingly expresses his promise not to forget anything that happened, to remember everything, and to see that people learn from his words.
The same sentiment, “Let our fate be a warning to you,” is engraved on the mausoleum at Majdanek death camp in Poland, which contains the ashes and remains of those executed there. These words give voice to the feelings of the voiceless about those who remain alive. Thankfully, sensitive people saw to it that the victims’ soundless and anguished cry would be carved in stone forever.
To remain in someone’s memory was the desperate wish of those who foresaw their harrowing end, and that of their family and friends, as they walked to the gas chambers. They hoped people in the future would never again be indifferent or daunted by the face of evil. They tried as best they could to keep the torch of human dignity high in the midst of the dark and miserable night that Nazism imposed on humanity.
But to heed their warning we must remember the history of what happened.
We must repeat it to our children and grandchildren, until they are indelibly imprinted on their consciences. The passage of time, the disappearance of the eyewitnesses to the Nazi abomination, the difficulties of transmitting the visceral horror to new generations, and the apathy of those who deny or minimize the historical all dim the memory that it is essential to preserve.
Humanity desperately needs the memory of the Shoah against the Jewish people and of all the genocides suffered by different peoples before and since. It is memory that ultimately will break endlessly repeating cycles of viciousness. It is memory that will help overcome the destructive impulses that can lurk in the human heart. It is memory that will help us recognize the selfishness and pettiness and corruption that leaves so many people in misery today.
In the Jewish tradition, God has a Day of Memory. It is Rosh Hashanah, when each new year begins. God’s Book of Memories that records the actions of each person is opened on that day. The Creator judges everyone and decides their fate. It is the day when God also remembers the covenants he made with humans, with Noah and Abraham and their descendants.
Similarly, may this International Holocaust Remembrance Day be a time when God teaches us that there can always be a new beginning, and that the decision whether to repeat or reject past atrocities lies in each of our hands.
* Gratz College, Melrose Park, PA, USA
Abraham Skorka *