Jewish Wisdom for Goys & Gers

Holidays, Loss

Yom HaShoa: A Personal Reflection

Not too long ago as I was passing through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, I happened upon the exact location where—74 years ago—my fellow Italian citizens had been rounded up and herded onto cattle cars to face an uncertain, horrific fate. Surely none of the ten thousand deportees from Italy could have suspected the depths of degradation that awaited them, and sadly few survived the nightmarish ordeal to recount the dreadful horrors.

As I stood in the center of the piazza, it was as if waves of sadness, guilt, anger, and shame came crashing down upon the depths of my soul. “How could anyone have stood against the immense fascist machine?” I quivered. The victims had been rendered powerless, like sheep for the slaughter. Some hid, while others resisted; but for most the only option was submission.

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which each year exerts a profound impact upon me, taking on deeper meanings and infusing me with insights that inspire me for daily living. This year as I look down the corridor of the past two millennia, I’m easily disheartened by the ugliness of the human condition: the senseless destruction of the Jewish homeland, the Inquisition and Crusades, the repeated pogroms, marginalization, massacres…must I go on?

But I dare not stop with the brutality of mankind, for when I peer into the resilience, the resolve, and the sheer determination of the Jewish people, I am encouraged how—time and time again—the human spirit has triumphed over humanity’s tragedies. Staring each trial in the face, the Jews’ adherence to halakha (Jewish Law), observance of the Sabbath, and celebrations of the High Holidays fortified their hope of redemption, their dream of a more perfect world, and their will for survival.

This long and complex history has taught me the sobering lesson that, as long as hope stays alive, I can respond to life’s misfortunes. The Holocaust was an unprecedented, unparalleled attempt to annihilate a specific people and, thus, can be singled out as humanity’s greatest calamity. Unfortunately, it has become fashionable for some to deny the historicity of Holocaust and, thereby, undermine any chance of hope!

This attempt throws a blow of disrespect in the face of every surviving Jew and, in my opinion, equals the cruelty of the Holocaust itself. What further degradation can we heap on a religion or people that have been submitted to genocidal devastation than to negate the very existence of the actual genocide?! Shall we also erase from our history books the reality of the killing fields in Cambodia and other mass atrocities happening today in places like Syria?!

Nevertheless, the Holocaust was not only a systematic effort to purge society of Jewish DNA, but it was also a concentrated assault on the values that have undergirded the Jewish people. These are the values that caught my attention years ago when I was a teenager! These are the values that have revolutionized my life over the years, instilling me with hope, purpose, and respect for the dignity of human life. These are the values that cause me to cry out, “For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God my God.”

Alas, we come to the question! Why? I have heard Jews and non-Jews alike hurl the ultimate blame on the Jewish people; others raise their fist at God. But I accuse humanity—the flawed nature and moral condition of the human race. Humans were the direct cause of Holocaust, and humans were responsible for stopping it. Furthermore, when we solely pose the question “Where is God?” we run the risk of missing out on “where God is!” Our focus cannot and should not be on the absence of God but rather on the presence of God. When we act, God is present in our world!

Year after year, Yom HaShoah raises its voice and, woos us out of passivity, spurring us unto action. It calls to us, stirring our spirits out of indifference and unto acts of tzedakah (charity), chesed (acts of kindness), and tikkun olam (repairing the world). It presents us with the raw reality of personal choice, the brutal watershed of action vs non-action—the unadorned decision to remain bystanders or become active partners of the living God.

Yom HaShoah is a testimony to the power of hope, the triumph of the human spirit, and the victory of God’s covenant. As we light the candles to pay our respect to millions of lives that were extinguished in the Holocaust, may this Day ignite a spark within our human spirits to reaffirm God’s covenant and affirm the values of dignity and human life.

Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba….

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