Each year on January 27, many countries in the world recognizes the solemn memory of the Holocaust. On this day we commemorate the victims, the genocide of European Jewry, and a period of human history marked by the greatest depths of evil perpetrated against human kind. Sadly, these atrocities did not mark the end of such human tragedy, though the Nazi goal of elimination of an entire people must serve as what guides us toward ending genocides wherever they exist.
Though I was born ten years after the end of World War II, the memories of the Holocaust are burned deep within my soul.
As a child who grew up on Long Island, I recall that in elementary school as groups of chatty, animated children crossed the last street before entering the building, a tall, slender woman with dark circles under her eyes in a uniformed pantsuit issued by the school district, raised her hand-held stop sign to halt traffic and ensure our safety. On her arm just above the fallen sleeve that had elevated the sign were a series of numbers etched into her skin. It was years later that I realized what those numbers meant. Thinking back, that simple daily ritual of overseeing our passage to safely to begin our daily education, was layered in however many months or years she, as a child, spent in another type of building filled with untold horrors. I remember, that she was a quiet woman who went about her job with diligence and caring for her charges as we relied upon her vigilance to reach an island of security and warmth; a sanctity she herself didn’t have in her youth, and may never have found in her lifetime.
When I was a young teen, the sirens of nearby fire engines blared late one summer night. As if in some somnambulant balletic dance, my parents and two younger brothers arose from our sleep, and exited our home to locate the source of sounds that often made me shiver. Along with our neighbors, we could see the flames along with their spiraling embers piercing the umbrella of the night sky emanating from the newly built small orthodox synagogue just over the five-foot, rickety wooden fence that provided a barrier from the dead end of our street. Streams of water from hoses that the fire fighters aimed into the depths of the inferno would eventually douse the flames, but the remaining rubble carried centuries of hate. To my parents especially, who lost family in the concentration camps in Poland, in that moment the water could not quell the painful memories that the collapsing structure aroused. I can still visualizel my mother muttering to no one in particular, but to a world that allowed the hate to happen, “this is how it starts.”
I have taken up the cause of writing about the genocide in Bosnia. I am acutely aware that many of my personal and professional experiences have led me to this journey in my later adult years. I have spoken with survivors of the concentration camps in Prijedor and other places in that small, central European country. I have sat in witness of survivors of those targeted because they are of an ethnicity and religion that is conveniently propagandized as the reason for all of another people’s ills, as tears roll down their cheeks. I have pondered over the greatest atrocities on European soil since the Holocaust. The numbers of perished under the Nazi’s final solution are staggering. Though many less were murdered, the goal on the part of nationalist Serbs was no less diabolical. Over 100,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) lost their lives, with several thousand women and girls raped, and nearly two million ultimately displaced from their homes. And this was in the early 1990s! The playbook for authoritarianism, and its horrific consequences hasn’t changed. Evidence the Uyghurs in China, and it seems we are witnessing the same in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The human toll of genocides past and present is always quite sobering. And then there are the generations that follow, who carry the trauma, and house the residual memories of the lost within their DNA, both literally and figuratively, forever.
Yet, we must persist in recalling in our private moments, public ceremonies, and physical commemorative sites like Holocaust Museums to ensure that we never forget. Some say, why bring up the past? Should that even be a question that we ask? The questions ought to be, why is it critical to remember the past? What must we learn from it? How do we honor those who were victims, and those who have come afterwards carrying the same genetic make-up, hearing the same hateful tropes, understanding deep within how it can happen again and again if we let our guard down? Today’s genocides remind us that we have not lost the capacity to carry out the erasure of entire groups of people. Memorialization seeks to preserve that which we couldn’t stop at the time.
What we remember on January 27 is not just for Jews, but for all of humanity to reflect upon how the Holocaust is not a distant memory, but a guidepost for where humanity goes if we forget its lessons.