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As a child, I attended my temple's weekly Sunday school class. We learned about Jewish culture, tradition and history--mostly through coloring books and art projects like the one that involved pasting macaroni on homemade seder plates. But the Sunday school stories we learned, like Moses confronting the Pharaoh of Egypt, the miracle of Hanukkah, and Queen Esther's heroics, stuck with me. I loved these stories, although part of me believed them to be just that--stories. Not necessarily untrue, they seemed so fantastic--things that happened in biblical times, stories of a different era. Today, no one could part the Red Sea.
As I studied our peoples' history, one trial and tribulation after another, I noticed that ultimately we always triumphed and were stronger because of our struggles. God had always come to our rescue in some miraculous way. Tales of pain and suffering had become holidays and we could now celebrate what we had overcome.
Then we learned about the Holocaust. It was taught, just as the other biblical stories were, as an historical tale. But even as a child, I knew this story was different. You could feel the difference from how our Sunday school teachers taught it. The pain was still present, palpable and all too real. I learned this was not some distant story from millennia past in the biblical world. This horror had occurred within the past 100 years. Where, I wondered, had God been? Why hadn't he come to our rescue as he had in the past?
My own grandparents lived during the time of the Holocaust. In fact, my grandfather fought as an American soldier against Hitler's army on the shores of Normandy. Both of my father's parents had relatives who died in concentration camps. My father's best friend, who has been like an uncle to me, is the son of two survivors of Auschwitz. The Holocaust may have happened forty years before my birth, but there were still people alive to whom I am deeply connected who had lived through it, unlike those distant biblical stories that one had to rely on faith to believe. First-hand experiences, witnesses, photos--all these things made the Holocaust true in a way that biblical stories had never been for me.
Even my mother, who was raised Catholic, believed it important to teach her children about the Holocaust. She told us stories from Catholic school about nuns in Europe who hid Jewish children from Nazi soldiers. My mother taught us that the Holocaust was not just a tragedy for Jews; it was a tragedy that had affected the whole world.
The fact that the Holocaust happened in this day and age disturbs me. How could these things happen in modern times? And could the Holocaust happen again?
I distinctly remember one day after Sunday School asking my father, when I was still young enough to see the world as made up of simply “good guys” and “bad guys,” who was the worst, meanest, most evil “bad guy” in Jewish history. Pharaoh, Antiochus, or maybe Haman? “Hitler,” was his matter of fact reply in the same honest but wounded voice my Sunday school teachers used when discussing the Holocaust. I remember thinking, “That's easy to remember” because the word “Hit” was in Hitler's name, as if even his name personified violence.
As I grew older, the world became more complicated, no longer simply made up of “good” and “bad” guys. It would have been easy to believe every Nazi soldier, German citizen, and other person who submitted to authority was a “bad guy.” But I began to wonder whether other things like political propaganda, fascism, and a culture of hate could influence even the best of us. Could normal people, good people, commit atrocities? This idea scared me, because if anyone was capable of terrible things in the right setting, if it was part of human nature, what's to stop the Holocaust from happening again?
I know genocide has occurred since the Holocaust, in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. But we cannot give up. My understanding of the Holocaust has cultivated a strong need to remember the past, question authority, and value every human life. Cherishing these ideals, but mostly remembering the Holocaust, is the best defense I can offer, especially for my generation, the grandchildren of the Holocaust. Our grandparents, our parents, and my generation all know survivors. But my own children will not know many, if any, survivors. So we carry the added burden of being the link between two worlds--the generations that experienced and knew the Holocaust and those that can only learn about it as history.
Today, although there are still people alive who experienced the Holocaust, some people and governments question whether it really happened. It becomes my generation's job to remember and teach the Holocaust so that our children and our children's children remember it as historical fact, different from the biblical stories of my youth that relied on faith. To forget about history is to let six million people to have died in vain.