And Adar comes not a moment too soon in this cold and dreary winter! Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, saw his shadow last week, condemning us to yet another six weeks of winter.
77 years after the end of the Holocaust, echoes continue today from that long grim period of horror and sorrow for the Jewish people. Antisemitic acts and hate speech incidents number in the thousands in recent years. Large sectors of the world population continue to deny the Holocaust ever happened. Yet larger sectors clamor for the ultimate destruction of the only Jewish nation on Earth, not the least of which the United Nations, who gave Israel its life in 1948.
Two important dates in Jewish history are marked this week.
Eighty years ago on January 20, 1942, the infamous Wannsee Conference took place in a large lakeside three-story mansion in suburban Berlin. By the way, the beautiful mansion on the lake in Berlin had been owned by a Jewish family before they were deported.
Fifteen Nazi German leaders attended the meeting that coordinated plans to “orderly execute” —murder— millions of Jews during World War II.
The conference minutes, written by Adolf Eichmann, a conference participant, noted that: “Due to the war, the emigration plan [for Jews to leave Europe for other lands and nations] has been replaced with deportation of the Jews to the East, in accordance with the Fuhrer’s will.”
This conference of leading Nazi officials lasted just 90 minutes, but sealed the fate of 6 million Jews. The conference was headed up by the notorious Reinhard Heydrich, who was put in charge of the final solution by Adolf Hitler yemach shemo (may his name and memory be erased).
At the conference, the Jewish populations of each of the European countries, including Scandinavia and Great Britain, were detailed, 11 million in total. By this time, Hitler’s overly ambitious plan to defeat the Soviet Union had and reached an impasse, and German soldiers were stalled in their attacks on Russian cities in the dead of winter.
Despite this, however, the Einsatzgruppen – the mobile killing squads – had already killed 1 million Jews in their sweep through eastern Europe behind the German army lines.
The 19 Nazi officials who attended the conference were well educated, many of them doctorates, and represented the non-military administration. The plans of the final solution, the extermination of the Jews, were treated as if this were any other corporate venture.There are a number of documentaries available to help us understand better how such a thing as possible.
How could such a conference even occur, in a society of laws, of culture, of education, supposedly the peak of the enlightenment? In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler’s rambling memoir that he dictated to Rudolf Hess during his imprisonment in 1924, Hitler condemned the Jews by calling them “conscience of the world “. Jews are always there, he said, to remind us of our moral responsibilities, our moral requirement that we take care of each other. “
He was so clear in his statements that “we don’t need this conscience any more, we don’t need the Jews to remind us of our responsibilities. We are our own conscience, we will decide what is right and wrong, and what is moral and immoral. “
In other words, Hitler and his minions were to be substituted where, for thousands of years, a higher moral authority was respected, that of G-d and the Torah.
This week also marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Unlike our own Yom HaShoah – our own Holocaust remembrance day of the Jewish calendar – this United Nations-designated day marks the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, 77 years ago last week, January 27. The UN marks the event with several important ceremonies.
What is the purpose of these commemorations? The endless speeches and memorials to these vanished poor holy souls?
I believe they are intended by good people to prevent such horrific crimes and murders from happening again. Some countries have taken steps to assure that such a crime recur. Throughout Germany, for example, the primary perpetrator of these crimes, there has been installed a high-ranking official in each of its 16 states and at the national level to monitor antisemitism within their state, to look at publications and news and social media, to monitor hate speech and actions. It is a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust, to make public remarks against Jews.
This is not to say that all these public ceremonies and remembrances have prevented genocide and other crimes against humanity all over the world, in Rwanda, and China, and Myanmar, Yemen and other places.
We must continue to be vigilant. Just a couple of weeks ago, yet another synagogue was attacked. Thank G-d the hostages got out safely. But we must continue to be vigilant.
Our Jewish faith is all about memory and the strength of our nation, across national borders, reaching its full strength in the United States and Israel, is a collective memory for thousands of years.
This is a memory of cohesion and moral courage that has survived the demise of many great civilizations, yet continues to persist, despite the many attempts throughout history to remove the Jewish voice from our world. We are to remember our forefathers, we are to remember those enemies who tried to tear us apart, who preyed on the weak and the elderly. During the high holidays, in Eileh Ezkerah – These we shall remember – we recall the terrible torture of our sages, who died with the words of the Shema and the Torah on their lips, at the hands of their Roman torturers.
Just as the state of Israel was rebuilt by the remnants of our holy martyrs, we Jews have a mission. The mission is to continue to remind the world. To be a thorn in the side of the nations of the world, to constantly remind them of their moral and human responsibility to take care of each other.
We have a saying “Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh bazeh” – all of Israel – every Jew is responsible for all other Jews. I say it goes further than that. We humans have aresponsibility for all the other humans. It is our job, our mission to take care of others around us and around the world.
I am so heartened when I see the Habitat for Humanity here in La Crosse build a home, completing the building of a home for a needy family. When I see the plans for substantial housing for the homeless and subsidized housing for those who need it here in La Crosse.
Here in La Crosse, when I see the city council and the county council – and other local governing bodies throughout the Coulee Region – passing resolutions to welcome with open arms the thousands of refugees that have landed in Wisconsin from Afghanistan, asking only for lives of peace and prosperity and health.
Here in La Crosse, where our interfaith leaders work so hard to create an atmosphere of love and mutual acceptance for each other. When I see here in La Crosse, Viterbo University continuing its important work of teaching teachers from all over the US how to teach about the Holocaust.
When I see here in La Crosse people of all faiths working together for a common goal, we should realize the importance of an international holocaust remembrance day.
May it be the impetus for us all to continue working together for the greater good.