Honor Holocaust victims by fighting injustice everywhere

Few events in human history elicit the same sense of sorrow, horror, and shared revulsion evoked by the Holocaust. Born of hatred — nurtured by evil on one hand and apathy on the other — the Shoah devoured an entire generation of Jews and scarred the minds and bodies of those who were fortunate enough to escape with their lives.

Yom HaShoah, marked this year on Sunday, April 18, is a time for remembering this horrible event and for mourning its victims. We mourn not only the utter devastation of that which was, but also that which might have been. It is right that we cry; it is right that our communities sponsor programs dealing with every aspect of the Holocaust, loudly reiterating the atrocities committed against our people.

In the face of revisionism, and in response to those who urge us to forget the past and move forward, we must stand up and reaffirm the value of remembering. But we must be clear ourselves as to why we continue to open our wounds. We must know why we cry and why we ask our young people — who have no first-hand experience of the Shoah themselves — to come and cry with us.

Our children may remind us that some 60 years have passed, that there are now new “causes,” new issues on which to speak out. We must restrain our impulse to lash out at our sons and daughters, admonishing them that they are being insensitive and separating themselves from their people.

Our challenge is not to silence their voices but rather to create for them, and for ourselves, a very real connection between the past and the present — to bind together our history and our future.

For, in reality, if we cry for the victims of the Holocaust without feeling sorrow over continuing acts of anti-Semitism throughout the world or without losing sleep at the thought of the lives being lost today in Iraq; if we recoil from the horrible image of Jews pent up like animals in Nazi concentration camps without grieving over the ongoing terrorist attacks in Israel; if we weep at the sight of emaciated Jews with shrunken bodies and lifeless eyes without feeling a sense of loss at the sight of half-dead children in Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan; or if we cringe at the sight of crematoria without being shaken by the empty hole that used to be the World Trade Center, then we have not learned the lesson our suffering should have taught.

We just finished celebrating the holiday of Passover. While at that time we were enjoined to eat and drink and rejoice in our freedom, we were told also to invite all who are hungry to come and eat, and we were instructed to consider ourselves as if we, too, had been slaves in Egypt. These are more than colorful phrases — they are calls to action, to involvement and to justice.

Human life is a valuable commodity. In the face of mass death, we may lose sight of the inestimable value of one soul. Certainly, those who perpetuate terror place little value on the life of the individual. While death tolls have increasingly become a matter of statistics, we must not allow ourselves to become immune to horror.

Just as the diary of Anne Frank forced countless readers to discern a personal face beneath the numbing slaughter of the Holocaust, so, too, must we now find a way not to lose sight of the horror of continued injustice.

We all need — and we are entitled to receive — the cooperation and assistance of others, whether it be the Swedish government taking steps to save Denmark from destruction during World War II or the Jewish community in the United States working with the black community to counter the threat from white supremacists.

In the face of insanity, one cannot counter with apathy. If we cannot love one another, we can at least try to protect one another from irrational hatred and arbitrary violence. The Torah commands us to “teach our children.” And indeed, we must teach them about the horrors of the Holocaust. But if we do not seize this opportunity to teach them equally about our responsibility — as human beings — to speak out not only against our own destruction but that of other groups as well, then not only will we not have fulfilled the biblical injunction, but we also will have violated the dictates of our communal conscience and the essence of our religious teachings.

Let us remember, but let us also act.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.


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