· Vatican City ·

Reflections for International Holocaust Memorial Day

Living Memories

*OR* n.288/10 - shoah - il filo spinato delimita un tratto del ghetto di Varsavia (arch. Keystone)
26 January 2024

International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 marks the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated the Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Seventy-nine years have passed since then. A glance at today’s world seems to lead inevitably to the conclusion that some of the forces behind that genocide have changed little. Bigoted hatred endures against Jews and many others who are “different” in any way. The valiant efforts of thinkers, teachers, institutions, and international organizations of all kinds have not managed to cure or prevent the plague of inhumanity, which poisons the feelings, thoughts, and actions of too many. It seems that the human species is enslaved by self-serving passions that it cannot overcome.

Insensitivity towards fellow human beings, an inability to commiserate with those who are suffering, an excessive ambition for power and possessions, and egocentrism are symptomatic of ailing civilizations. In the words of Ezekiel 36:26, I would say that much of humanity needs to exchange its heart of stone for one of flesh.

Although each individual has unique genetic, cultural, and social traits that form their character, a central thesis of the Bible is that everyone has the free will to improve themselves, change their vision, and become more empathetic. Deuteronomy 30:19 is the  locus classicus of this axiom: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” According to Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed, iii , chapter 17; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6) to deny human responsibility for their selfish choices and deeds not only brings misery. It also goes hand in hand with denying the God who demands that people act with justice and mercy.

The stranglehold of dehumanization can and must be broken. One way to do so is to cultivate memory. The recollection that human beings are capable of tremendous evil warns us that wickedness is always lurking, posing a perennial challenge to all efforts to build a humane world.

Although a vast library of studies, documents, and other materials about the Shoah exists, a compendium that began to be assembled even before most people knew about the Nazi carnage, the lasting significance of what happened does not seem to inform the consciences of most people. Why has it not been obvious to everyone that we must all be more humane, that we must choose life? Why has commitment to collaborating to achieve this goal not been passionately embraced by all people? Why do social injustices and inequalities, not to mention the apparent thriving of totalitarian regimes, persist and even worsen?

Books, testimonies, and everything that contributes to a living memory cannot remain as mere recorded data somewhere. Nor can memory be impactful if it is paid lip service on only one or two days a year. To be truly meaningful, memory must be an integral part of living culture. If not, it is nothing more than a curiosity or subject of academic debate.

When the Children of Israel came out of slavery in Egypt, Moses cried out to them: “Remember this day!” (Exodus 13:3) so that this moment remains engraved in the memory of the people. Deuteronomy 16:3 directs that only unleavened bread be eaten during the days of the celebration of Passover, eliminating everything leavened. This inculcates a habit that physically encourages memory of what it means to be inhumanly oppressed. It and other related practices impress on people’s consciences all the days of their life the necessity of being free.

The exit from Egypt is understood in Jewish tradition as the first redemption of Israel (Exodus 6:6). Since then Jews have preserved the conviction that God will bring them to a final redemption, together with all peoples. As long as the Jewish people keep in mind the memory of the first redemption, the hope of a future and final redemption will continue to live in their being. As long as humanity sustains the memory of horror day after day and commits itself to banishing the forces that produced it, the world that God desires, the one that the prophets envisioned as one of redemption for all, will someday be a reality.

*  Georgetown University,
Washington, D.C.

By Abraham Skorka*