“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In this quote Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, demonstrated a courageous response to the most unbearable of experiences by committing himself to action.
One of the great challenges of Holocaust memorial is in representing a duality of purpose – to turn inwards and grieve those that we have lost and also to look outwards and become inspired to disrupt injustice wherever it is found.
This is a complex emotional and intellectual exercise that runs deeply within Jewish tradition and practice. We have recently celebrated Pesach in which we are instructed to remember “our” exodus thousands of years ago. We are likewise instructed no less than 36 times throughout the Torah to “welcome the stranger” as we too were strangers. Here the “remember” and “act” duality is evident.
This week we commemorated Yom Hashoah with a moving school community memorial and the introduction of a Zikaron b’salon platform (memory in a salon) for testimony to be heard in a smaller more intimate setting. In committing ourselves to this we are demonstrating the importance of trying to break down the mind-blowing statistics of annihilation reflected in any retelling of the events of the Shoah and in its place present our students with individual and specific testimony that will allow for the understanding that each figure in these unfathomable numbers represents an individual. An attempt to make the experiences more relatable was enhanced through adoption of a theme of exploring the impact of the Shoah on young people.
As part of our memorial we call upon members of our community to light candles to reflect their and their ancestors’ stories and also to honour the names of their family members in an online memorial book because this day is also a personal memorial for our murdered loved ones. This injection of the deeply personal gives an emotional context to the memorial.
This year there is tragically an added resonance to our commemoration of Yom Hashoah. Just this week there was, yet again, a lethal terrorist attack on a place of worship, the Poway Chabad synagogue in California. Rabbi Goldstein who lost a finger in this attack, wrote a piece in The New York Times entitled, “A Terrorist Tried to Kill Me Because I Am a Jew. I Will Never Back Down.” This attack follows the horrific attacks on the Sri Lankan Christian community and last month’s on the New Zealand Muslim community.
To borrow from Elie Wiesel again – we must take sides. The most righteous and befitting way to honour the fallen is to truly commit to the concept of “Never again”. This compels us to develop a sensitivity to the changes in language, attitudes or norms that can lead to the erosion of human rights or the demonization of “the other.”
In honouring the individuals whose lives, livelihoods and ways of life were destroyed in this bleakest of periods in our history, we must also dedicate ourselves to becoming social justice warriors and worriers who refuse to stay silent when our voices can make a difference.