Seventy years ago, the Soviet Red Army reached the Polish town of Oswiecim and broke through the gates of the camp that would become synonymous with the most heinous crimes of the Nazi genocide. Every year, on January 27th, the day that Auschwitz was liberated and the magnitude of its evil was revealed, the international community commemorates the Holocaust and commits once more to learning its lessons. And this year for the occasion, a British network decided to pose the question in its live weekly panel show, “Is it time to lay the Holocaust to rest?”
Yes, its only a question, not a statement. And yes, there were several members of the panel, including Rabbis and survivors who spoke forcefully and eloquently for why such a notion was absurd. One could make a case that the show was intended to enforce that point. However, even as a question, the subject of the show made clear that rather than just a task of educating about the lessons of the Holocaust, we now have the ever more difficult task of reinforcing why it is the Holocaust that stands as a unique source for learning the lessons in the first place.
Both Jews and other peoples have suffered and do suffer greatly at other times and in other places. Not enough ink exists to describe the examples of callous cruelty visited by one person on another nor the way one people has profited from the enslaving and brutalization of another. And yet never before seen was the Holocaust’s mobilization of an entire society to reduce millions of its neighbors first to subhuman status and then to ashes. The lessons of the Holocaust are universal, but the scope and breadth of what befell its victims is quite particular.
Remembering the Jewish victims of the Holocaust does not shut the door on recognizing evils perpetrated against others, whether by the Nazis or in our time. However, to truly not forget the Holocaust means to also be vigilant against the easy way in which some other acts or conflicts are easily compared with it. War crimes, hatred, murder, discrimination. Each and every one of these is a great danger and an injustice that must be countered. Being inspired by “Never Again” is a powerful part of opposing these travesties, whether for Jews or others. But taking up the cry of “ever Again” does not mean that the injustice being fought against encompasses what the Nazis carried out and what they planned to perpetrate against their victims.
The Biblical episode of Amalek, because of its extreme language and the emphasis on memory, has become singularly associated with the evil of the Nazi Holocaust. Amalek is a nation that falls upon the Israelites as they are weak, targeting the infirm and the vulnerable and showing no mercy. While the full description of the encounter occurs in the Torah we read this week, it is later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the Jewish people are commanded to never forget the cruelty of Amalek. Zachor Asher Asa L’cha Amalek, Remember what Amalek did… This command can and often is taken as a sweeping statement of the need for vigilance against those who would prey on the weak and wreak havoc without regard for human life. But more exactly the Hebrew reads, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” This is not just about a broad category of those who do evil. This is also about remembering what it felt like to have evil done “to you.”
I do not commemorate what Amalek did to me in order to live in the past or to remain stuck only in my own experience. That said, the choice between remembering the specifics of the Holocaust and “laying it to rest” for the sake of moving on, is false. I hold on to the command to remember what Amalek did to me to ensure that I never shrug off evil in the world as someone elses problem. Achieving Never Again, in all its facets, begins with the commitment to Never Forget.
May the memory of those murdered by the Nazis, those whose names, faces and stories will never be fully known, forever be a blessing to this world. May those who survived to see the light again be among those who guide us forward to never forget.