Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the symbolic end of the Holocaust on January 27, 1945, when Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/death camp in Poland.
On this day we remember not only the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis; we also remember around 6 million more the Nazis murdered: Slavs, ethnic Poles, Romani (also known as Roma or Gypsies), mentally and physically disabled people, and gay men.
The United Nations designated this day of commemoration in 2005. This followed the lead of several European countries which had already marked this date as a national day of remembrance.
How is International Holocaust Remembrance Day different from Yom HaShoah?
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a civil day of commemoration in many countries, marked ever January 27th by the Gregorian calendar. Yom HaShoah, on the other hand, is a Jewish holiday. The State of Israel designated the 27th of the month of Nisan by the Jewish calendar for Yom HaShoah. Yom HaShoah honors not only the victims of the Holocaust, but also resistance fighters, such as those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
How does a someone who converted to Judaism connect with the Holocaust?
I was eleven years old when I first met someone who wa in Auschwitz at the time of its liberation, a woman named Edith Bell. She and her husband Sid were friends of my parents. theirs was probably the only Jewish family in the small town in West Virginia where we lived at the time. They were also the first Jewish people I ever remember meeting. Edith would occasionally speak at the local college, telling her personal story of survival as a young girl.
Since then, I have had the privilege of meeting many more survivors and hearing their stories – in private, during school programs, and at big public events. If I can make a suggestion / ask a favor, Hero: If you ever have the opportunity to listen to a survivor of the Holocaust speak, please take advantage of it.
First, I can tell you from personal experience and the experience of my friends and students: Hearing about the Holocaust from someone who was there is an experience you will not regret, nor ever likely forget.
Second, with the passage of time, we have fewer and fewer survivors left every year, and this is a story that must not die with the generation of people who lived through it.
The most recent time I heard the story of a survivor was just a few weeks ago. A guest speaker came the Miller Introduction to Judaism class I was teaching. Whenever possible, the Miller program arranges for a survivor to speak to the class on night we discuss the Holocaust and antisemitism. I had heard several survivors speak over the years, but this one had a unique effect on me.
One Woman’s Personal Account
Before our speaker, Paula Lebovics, arrived, I asked my students what questions they had about the topic before class began, to make sure we cover all of the questions over the course of the evening. One student asked: “What do we say to people who question or deny that the Holocaust ever happened?”
(If you haven’t yet encountered a Holocaust denier, either online or in person, count yourself lucky.)
I wrote the question on the board, hoping by the end of the evening, my students would have their answer.
Then Paula joined us to share her story. She was among the young women who were present when the Red Army liberated the camp. By that day of liberation, Auschwitz was nearly deserted; the Germans knew the Russians were coming, and 10 days before the liberation, German soldiers evacuated most of the prisoners on foot in harsh winter conditions, in effect creating a death march. Many of the prisoners left behind were children who had been singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele for medical experimentation. German soldiers clearing the camp had ignored that ward of children in the evacuation.
These children remained in the camp without access to food or warm clothing; what supplies hadn’t been looted by evacuating soldiers, or set fire to, were on the far side of electrified fences. Only when Red Army soldiers cut the power to the fences could Paula and children like her eat for the first time in days.
What Changed for Me
But what struck me more than the end of her story was its beginning. Paula was six when the Nazi regime took hold of her Polish town; being dispossessed and harassed for being Jewish was almost all she ever knew to that point. She told of an incident that happened shortly before being sent to a concentration camp. A German soldier had found her hiding, and he ordered her at gunpoint to show her where others were hiding. When she couldn’t help him, he ordered her to turn around so he could shoot her. Knowing what would happen, she refused, trembling and crying all the while. At a critical moment, another soldier, drunk, shouted at him something like, “Don’t waste the bullet! She’ll be dead soon anyway.”
Like I said, I’ve heard moving stories from survivors before, but this time it was different. At the moment she was almost shot, she was only nine years old.
The same age as my daughter.
At that moment in Paula’s story, I imagined my own daughter trembling and crying, fearing for her life. For the rest of the evening, in every description of what had happened to Paula, I pictured my daughter enduring it. All for the “crime” of being born Jewish, as my daughter was.
I don’t know that I will ever hear a survivor’s story the same way again.
How to Answer the Deniers
After Paula left, I pointed at the whiteboard on which I’d written students’ questions in the beginning of class. Specifically, I indicated the question, “What do we say to Holocaust deniers?”
My answer: Everyone here tonight can now say, “I wasn’t there, but I know someone who was.”
We have fewer and fewer people left who carry this story. But now, everyone who has heard it bears a responsibility. We are responsible for keeping these stories alive, beyond the lives of the witnesses, for as long as we live. We are now the witnesses, and it’s up to us to pass that responsibility to future generations as well.
Thanks for reading, Hero. You may see other messages, headlines, or stories about International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. I urge you to take in what you can, and bear witness when you must. And if you ever get the chance to hear a survivor speak, please hear their story, and carry it forward to future generations.