On January 27, 1945, when the Russian army marched into the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, even the battle-hardened soldiers were appalled at what they saw. Surviving prisoners so emaciated that they resembled walking skeletons came toward the troops weeping with gratitude. Years later, one solider described the scene: "When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn't even turn their heads, they stood like dead people … I was shocked, devastated."
It was the beginning of the end of one of the darkest chapters in human history, the Holocaust, during which more than ten million people died, including six million Jews. While Jews had endured pogroms (organized massacres) and oppression before, the Nazi's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people was unparalleled in scale and brutality. In some countries, including Poland, Greece, and Lithuania, the Jewish community was virtually wiped out. The effects of this cruel, systematic attempt to destroy European Jewry linger to this day, and will for generations to come, in the collective memory of the Jewish people.
Israel and Jewish communities worldwide remember the Holocaust beginning at sundown Wednesday on Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For two minutes throughout Israel, sirens sound, and the entire country comes to a standstill – all work comes to a halt, people walking down the street stop in their tracks, and cars stop in the road, their drivers exiting to stand in silent remembrance. It is a powerful display of national unity that not only honors the memory of those murdered in the Holocaust, but reaffirms Israel's identity as a strong and proud Jewish nation, one committed to ensuring that the horrors of the Holocaust are never repeated.
While the United Nations chose the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz for its annual Holocaust remembrance, it is fitting that Israel's Yom Ha'Shoah was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when Jews banded against the Nazis in the occupied Polish capital in a noble, though futile, attempt to drive out their oppressors. Thus, on Yom Ha'Shoah, we commemorate both the tragedy of the Holocaust and the proud spirit of Jewish self-determination that grew out of its horrors – a spirit that found its ultimate expression in the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Jewish state provided a refuge for many who managed to escape Nazism. Today, there remain nearly 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel. Incredibly, 60,000 of these individuals live under the poverty line. This simply should not be. There are many organizations, including my organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, working to alleviate the plight of these people who, having survived the scourge of Nazism, now live with the scourge of poverty. We honor those who died in the Holocaust not just by remembering them and telling their stories to new generations, but by honoring those who survived – by feeding them, clothing them, and letting them remember they are not alone.
By our modern standards, the Holocaust sometimes feels like ancient history. We like to think we have progressed, and that the threat of another Holocaust is remote. But we are continually reminded that the hatred of Jews simply because they are Jews – what Catholic scholar Edward Flannery once called the "longest and deepest hatred of human history" – persists. We see it in Toulouse, France, where a terrorist recently murdered four people, including three children, at a Jewish school. We see it in Ukraine, where a 25-year-old Jewish student was severely beaten during Passover. And we see it on a global scale in the words and actions of the radical Islamist government in Iran, which vows to wipe the "Zionist regime" – the Jewish state of Israel – off the map, and is pursuing nuclear capabilities to make its dream a reality.
In 1986, Jewish author Elie Wiesel, himself a Holocaust survivor, told of his resolve after the Holocaust: "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation," he said. "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Let us never be silent about what happened during the Holocaust, and let us be ever vigilant against its recurrence. And, let us remember those who endured, and survived, horrible suffering during the Holocaust. May we commit to helping them live out their lives with a measure of peace and dignity; after what they have endured, they deserve no less.