Survivors of the Holocaust and other heroes

I have heard it asked why is it that we have two annual remembrances of the Holocaust.  Often it is a question based on genuine curiosity.  Sometimes it is a convenient expression of resentment of Jews by people who don't really need a reason anyway.

International Holocaust Day, established by the United Nations, is recognized worldwide as the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, which for many people has become the very symbol of evil and by extension the malevolence of the entire Holocaust itself.

Yom HaShoah is more complex.  Established in Israel as the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, it falls the week after Passover.  It is, first, a Jewish commemoration, an opportunity for Jews to remember.  Of course, we welcome, even honor, the participation of non-Jews, but the Holocaust was a loss that has to be felt deep inside each Jewish heart.  The near annihilation of a civilization, the destruction of thousand-year-old communities, the murder of millions — shopkeepers, peddlers, teachers, mothers, scholars, musicians, tailors, rabbis, and of course the children, who are the future of any generation.

But there is something else, and it is found in the more complete name of the commemoration: Yom HaShoah v'Hagvurah.  Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day.

Who then are these heroes?  Of course, many readily come to mind, such as the fighters who revolted in the Warsaw Ghetto and the group, known as the Oneg Shabbat Archive, who recorded in minute detail the fate of the Jews of Warsaw.  Another is Hannah Szenes, the Hungarian Zionist, just 22, who returned to Europe from then Palestine in an attempt to save her people, but was captured, tortured, and executed.  The poetry she left is still read today.

It's not just Jews whom we think of as heroes of the Holocaust.  Righteous Gentiles, from the now-famous to the nearly obscure, risked everything to protect children, hide families, and help Jews escape their likely fate.

Polish Catholics Franciszek and Genowefa Swiatek took in a little girl spirited out of the Bochnia Ghetto right before it was liquidated, then raised her as their own.  Discovery meant certain death.  Years later, when the child was an adult, they helped her escape the clutches of the communist authorities suspicious of her Jewish roots.

Some of you know the story of Chiune Sigihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who issued thousands of visas to Polish Jews fleeing the Nazis.  Few may realize that he was openly defying his government, not a simple thing in a culture that prizes respect for authority and a nation that was an ally of Germany.  Yet he continued, even until he boarded a train as he himself was compelled to depart.  He was quoted as saying, "I did what we as human beings should do."

As the number of survivors dwindles, they become ever more treasured by us.  With the perspective of years, we can see how inspirational they have been.  The stories of how they survived is only one part of it.  They came with only their memories — and sometimes each other — and made lives for themselves.  And we, every one of us, are the beneficiaries.

As they recalled a world that no longer exists, they brought it to life again for us.  A childhood friend, a favorite dish, a grandparent who spoiled them.  Survivors have passed down the importance of the remembrance of tragedy of the Holocaust, first to their children, then later to what we call "three-G" and "four-G."  These generations carry the survivors' pain on some level, but they also an added responsibility to create a world where evil cannot take root.

However, it is up to us who perhaps do not have a direct connection to the Holocaust to ultimately be the force for remembrance.  Sheer numbers make that a reality.  Let's hope we have learned what the survivors have taught us about the preciousness of life and the power of each of us to rise above obstacles, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances.

On Yom HaShoah, as we read the names of the murdered; light candles for the six million; and recite the special mourner's prayer, the kaddish, interspersed with the names of camps and other places of horror, lets also think of the survivors — heroes all — who have done their best to make sure that we will never forget.

Jeremy B. Kay is the executive director of the Library of the Holocaust Foundation.

Image: Zoltan Kruger.

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