Today is the nationally observed Holocaust Remembrance Day. This article from the Huffington Post explains it well, I think.
From a young age I read everything I could about the Holocaust. I don't know why I was so drawn to the history and the stories of the victims and the survivors. I think I read Treblinka when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I remember sitting in a world history class in 7th grade, and we'd been learning about World War II. I had an amazing teacher, a little Italian man, named Mr. Giordano, or Mr. G. I remember he had a huge bunch of keys attached to his belt and he'd jump up and down when he got excited, and the keys would jingle. The day we talked about the Holocaust, he sent around 8x10 pictures of the camps. I remember feeling reverent, for lack of a better word, and tears were flowing, and suddenly a boy asked if I had a strong stomach and thrust a picture in my face. I think I got hysterical, I remember being very, very upset that he would take things so lightly. Mr. G sent me a note later that day that said something to the effect that if there were more people in the world like me, the Holocaust would never have happened. That has stuck with me for the past twenty-plus years, and has affected how I take sides on a lot of issues.
Having married a descendant of Romanian Jewish immigrants, the idea of the Holocaust strikes even closer to home. My husband and I took a trip to Washington D.C. last summer and spent some time at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was an emotionally draining experience, but I'm glad we went. Having read so much about this horrific period of history, I was better prepared for the feelings I had there than my husband was. It was a bit of a shock to him. There was a sweetness at the end of the tour as you watched a looping video of survivors. One particularly poignant story was of a young woman in a camp that was being liberated by Americans. One of the only prisoners able to stand, she watched as the soldiers entered the camp. A soldier came up to her and she said simply, "We're Jewish." He could hardly respond for the emotion that came over him, then he said that he was, too. They later married.
My senior paper in college was "A Community at Work: Activities of the Salt Lake Jewish Community During World War II". Written from a very Gentile perspective, I had fully intended to give a copy to Rabbi Wenger in Salt Lake City, Utah, but I was newly married that semester, pregnant with morning sickness, and I was so worried that having written it as a non-Jew, and knowing I didn't give my all in writing the paper, I've been ashamed to give it to them. I need to just do it, with profuse apologies for its many flaws, maybe it will have some meaning for their community.
I think that I have always been drawn to this part of history because of the suffering, but also because of the amazing examples of courage and compassion that have come out of such a dark time. In a time when people were dehumanized and treated as trash, a time when people could have just broken and given up, where the monsters from nightmares took the form of man, there were people who survived and who lived and those that didn't make it through have left echoes and tangible emptiness - and I believe it's important for us to remember and to try to give them a voice. We haven't jumped The Pond, yet, so I don't know which of our ancestors' relatives were lost during the Holocaust, but I'm not naive enough to assume that a vast amount of those that stayed behind in Romania and Russia and Hungary weren't lost. I honor them and all of those who fell victim to hatred.
*Follow-up note: After writing this post, I decided to scan in my old senior paper from college and send it to Rabbi Emeritus Frederick Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, with a big apology for waiting 15 years, and for everything the paper lacks. The subject deserved a scholar, not a pregnant senior with morning sickness just trying to make it to graduation. Here's a link to the paper, for better or worse, if anyone's interested:
A Community at Work: Activities of the Salt Lake Jewish Community During World War II