Kansas City teens at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The author is standing in the back row, second from the left.
When I decided to apply for the Together We Remember program, I only knew the bare minimum about the Holocaust. I hadn’t given it much thought. I only had a child’s knowledge of the Holocaust and I didn’t know how much more perverse the truth really was. Parents don’t tell their children everything about the Holocaust because children aren’t ready for that information. I know I wasn’t ready and I don’t think I will ever be.
The Together We Remember program selects freshmen from the Kansas City area to take part in an intensive Holocaust course, which culminates in a November trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The program, sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education and Learning For Life, is funded by local Holocaust survivor Sam Devinky.
The Holocaust was not the fault of just Germany and the Axis powers. It was the responsibility of the whole world to stop the destruction. The world stood by and watched as the Nazis rounded up Jews like animals, put them in camps and killed them. Jews hid and were turned in by their neighbors, the people who had previously been their friends and colleagues. Locally and internationally, people failed or refused to act like humans.
It says in Genesis 32:12, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau.” The text seems to say, save me from Esau when he is acting like a brother.
When we live with our neighbors like they are our brothers, we become complacent. When the Jews are faced with physical threat, we stand together spiritually and physically. Historically, when people tried to kill us with swords and spears, we stayed with Hashem and fought.
In the Book of Judges, whenever the Jews were faced with enemies we stood with Hashem. But when everything was easy, when we had assimilated into the culture almost completely, that was when we were spiritually at our weakest.
Germany took Hitler’s genocide to far-off places. In Iraq, an event much like Kristallnacht was instigated. My father told me about the Farhoud, a riot against Jews in Bagdad and Basrah. It was the first two days of Shavuot 1941 when neighbors and supposed friends mobbed and rioted in Iraq. Iraqis broke windows, burned businesses and killed people in the streets.
Jews had lived peacefully with the Arabs in Iraq since the first exile from Israel 2,400 years ago. But in the blink of an eye, they turned on us. My great-grandfather was a goldsmith; he was a pillar of the community and he was the head of the congregation. My great-grandfather had helped these same people with their money problems, their home lives and their jobs, and those were the people who came and burned my family’s house down, destroyed their business and destroyed their lives.
My Hebrew teacher posed a question and it made sense to me. Why did Moshe name his eldest son Gershom, which means “stranger in a strange land”, and his second son Eliezer, which means “Hashem saved me from my enemy’s sword”, when Moshe had been saved from the sword before being a stranger?
Being saved from execution happened before Moshe escaped from Egypt, so why not name the sons in chronological order? Even if Moshe decided to forgo the chronological order, wouldn’t being saved from an executioner's blade merit naming your first-born son after that event?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said that you must remember that you are a stranger and that you are not where you should be before you remember anything else—even before you remember Hashem’s saving you.
A Jew cannot assimilate completely. You must remain aware of your status as a stranger; do not forget you are a Jew.
In Exodus 15:2 it says, “The might and vengeance of God was salvation for me. This is my God and I will build him a Sanctuary; the God of my father and I will exalt Him.” The Torah says here that you have to have trust in Hashem, no matter what. Hashem will always take care of you.
During the Holocaust, families were torn apart. Parents lost children and siblings lost each other because the world stood idly by and our people were left to be murdered by the Nazis. The Holocaust proves that we cannot put our trust in mankind; Hashem has to be the one being that you put bitachon (faith) in.
Hashem is our salvation and Hashem will always care for us. We have to always believe in Hashem.
Our Together We Remember group ended its tour of the Holocaust Museum in the Hall of Remembrance. I thought about the exhibits we had seen, the rooms filled with artifacts of painful memories — the freight car, the boxes of shoes, the wall with pictures and images of people happy before the Holocaust and the names of those who died in the Holocaust. I saw photographs of once majestic synagogues, now turned into piles of rubble.
The Holocaust is not a single event, something we can disregard and ignore until Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember our history every day and never forget we are Jews.