“Whoever Listens to a Witness, Becomes a Witness”—Holocaust Remembrance Day

I was a little girl. I had done nothing to nobody, and I had to go there [Auschwitz].—Wellesina McCrary, Holocaust Survivor

One of our friends we knew from the ghetto, Danka Joskowicz—she ran to the barbed wires. I yelled to her, ‘Don’t go to the barbed wires! You will get electrocuted.’ She said, ‘What should I have to live for?’ So we said come be with us—Rozalia Nowak Berke, Holocaust Survivor

The smell [of the crematorium] was awful—things like that, you do not want to talk about it. Because the pain and memory of suffering comes back to you. You cannot deal with it.— Eva Gryka Kohan, Holocaust Survivor

Internal view of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. (Photo by GiuseppeCrimeni, Shutterstock.com)
Internal view of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. (Photo by GiuseppeCrimeni, Shutterstock.com)

Year by year, survivors of the Holocaust age, pass on and take with them the living memory of a horror beyond description, an experience they can bear witness to but may never share in its fullest. We may shudder, we may weep, but we can never empathize to the fullest with what they experienced. The emerging technologies of virtual reality and interactive holographic experiences, now incorporated in various Holocaust museums, can bring us a bit closer to an immersive experience, and so the legacy of the survivors lives on in some measure, perhaps just enough for us to endure before having dinner and going home to a warm bed.

This April 18th, Jews the world over observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. But to encompass a Holocaust observance takes more than a single day in a year. January’s International Holocaust Day, therefore, encompassed nearly two months of programs and seminars.

The United Nations description of that observance earlier this year reads, “Holocaust remembrance and education that includes opportunities to develop a deeper appreciation of the victims and survivors and their agency, can inform our response to the plight of contemporary victims…Focusing on the humanity of the victims prompts us to remember our humanity, and our responsibility to combat hate speech, combat antisemitism and prejudice—to do all we can to prevent genocide.”

But survivor Elie Wiesel put it better. In accepting the Nobel Prize, he said, “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

And again, Mr. Wiesel on the importance of bearing witness and not to forget: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

This writer’s father, an Orthodox Jew, was among the first GIs to discover and liberate a concentration camp. It fell to him to confront the mayor and elders of the neighboring town about the carnage on their doorstep.

“Oh we had no idea!” they protested, these men who had welcomed the murderers into their fine homes, had laughed with them, drunk their liquor and danced with their women, all the while ignoring the constant rain of human ashes that covered their town like grey snow.

My father loaded them into an army truck—still wearing their top hats and their gold chains of office—outfitted them with shovels and set them to the task of burying the dead that their Nazi friends had left behind.

My father rarely spoke of that day. It was uncomfortable and, after all, that’s all in the past now, he would say—possibly to spare his family the pain of hearing the story. But the reality he witnessed of the depths to which hatred can bring human beings and the unspeakable acts that hatred can provoke made a searing impression on him that informed every major decision he would make for the rest of his life—a life of service and selflessness within the Jewish community and beyond.

Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it’s not comfortable. But on this occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day—as every day—we must take a moment to remember, lest it happens again. Remember, listen, and become ourselves witnesses.

As Mr. Wiesel said, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.”

By Lew Morningstar


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Holocaust Remembrance Day