Today is Yom Hashoah, when we remember and honor the memories of the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. On the Hebrew calendar it marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (although not the exact date).
Stores in Israel were closed last night. This morning a siren was heard throughout the country during which traffic stopped and Israelis stood for two minutes of silence. Names of Holocaust victims are read in the Knesset and memorial services are held throughout the country. The radio and television run holocaust programming and survivor testimonies throughout the day. In the afternoon, the 31st the March of the Living will begin in Poland, where participants, including survivors and dignitaries, will march three kilometers from Auschwitz concentration camp to the Birkenau death camp.
Yom Hashoah is also commemorated in Jewish communities throughout the world.
As the years pass and the survivors of the Holocaust grow fewer, it gets harder to remember and even harder to relate to this most horrific episode in human history. Six million is such an overwhelming number that it can make us forget that it consists of individual people, each with a story of living, happiness, love, suffering, survival and yes, death.
How can we relate to the tragedy of the Holocaust?
Perhaps one way is to take a moment during our normal course of life to try and imagine how it would feel. When you’re outside in the bitter cold, imagine how you would feel if instead of your warm coat and boots, you were barefoot and naked. When you’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, imagine how it would feel to know that you all could be arrested and put on a train to Auschwitz at any moment. When you’re looking at your young children, imagine how it would feel to hold their hands as you walk together to a pit to be shot, or to the gas chamber.
A million and a half children were murdered in the Holocaust. Many of them were accompanied by at least one parent who would never leave them, even if that meant giving up an opportunity to save themselves. What did fathers and mothers, who gave up the chance to escape in order to stay with their children, tell them in those final moments? How did they muster the courage?
Another way to relate to the Holocaust is to read the first hand testimonies of survivors. Sometimes the testimonies of the murderers and collaborators is even more effective — and the only ones we have. [yes, the “neighbors” their share of the killing. Sorry, but it’s true.]
Here are a few:
Testimony of Ukrainian women – witnesses to murder of Jewish population of Sataniv:
“The Jews were walled up under the marketplace in a cellar. The Germans had burned some straw to make smoke and smother them. Then, after closing the door, they had piled 2 meters of earth on top. For four days afterwards the Jews had tried to get out. People saw the ground of the marketplace moving. On the fifth day the silence was total.”
Testimony from the village of Berniki:
“We are going to tell the truth. You see the house down there on the left, the modern house? Well, down there he hid Jews during the war. He hid a lot. And each time he killed them during the night. He smothered them with quilts. When they were dead, he stripped them and took their bodies to the quarry to get rid of them.“
Source – “The Holocaust by Bullets” by Father Patrick Desbois
From the testimony of Joseph F., a German soldier stationed in Kerch, Crimea, who witnessed the mass execution of hundreds of Jews.
“I climbed up onto the embankment I have already mentioned and saw a heap of clothes, children’s shoes and hats lying right there. I also saw piles of watches. Trucks full of men, women and children were arriving. The trucks arrived at the road and after they stopped, the people were pulled out by Russian civilians overseen by an SS guard. If they didn’t go fast enough, they were hurried along with sticks until they were all assembled on the embankment.
On the other side of the embankment, the Jews had to take off their clothes. If they didn’t do this fast enough, their clothes were ripped off by the Russians and two or three SS guards. If the Jews hadn’t known before, now they discovered what was to become of them. Some moan too loud, but most of the older Jews clasp their hands and look toward the sky. It was always the same image; they clasp their hands the way we do at home to ask for something and looked up at the sky.
When the children had nice shoes, they were pulled off by the Russians and the SS. The firing squad was composed of five or six SS. Once they were in front of the shooters, the Jews had to jump into the anti-tank ditch and stand against the straight wall. From there, it all went very fast. As soon as they were all inside, there was firing and the people slid to the ground.
I noticed among the women a man who was obviously paralyzed. He was big and fat. He was dragged to the execution spots by two 12 to 14 year old boys. The two boys took him by the shoulders but had to keep putting him down because he was so heavy. When they put him down, another Russian would hit and push them.
Then I noticed a very handsome couple with two small children. The husband and wife were very well-dressed. You could see right away that they were fine people. This couple was in one of the groups that the Russian civilian was bringing toward the firing squad. The woman had a child of about one in her arms, and the couple was leading another child of three or four by the hand. Once they were facing the firing squad, I saw the man ask for something. He had probably asked for permission to hold his family in his arms one last time, because I saw him embrace his wife and the child she was holding. But at the same moment, the shots were fired and everyone fell to the ground. I watched those people all the way to the firing squad because they were such a handsome couple and they had two children.”
The soldier then continues to describe the murder of Jewish children.
“Most of the time the children knocked over by their falling mother’s sat on the ground or on their mothers bodies without really understanding what had just happened. I saw how they climbed on their mothers among the dead women. They looked around and definitely did not understand what was going on. I still have the image very clearly before my eyes; they looked up with their big eyes and scared expressions at the shooters. They were too terrified to cry.
Twice I saw an SS go down into the ditch with a rifle and kill the children, who were sitting on the dead or on their own mothers, with one shot to the nape of the neck. As I’ve said, they weren’t crying, but looking around in shock. I think he was aiming for the head with his gun. At least, he held the barrel not far from the head, because I noticed almost no space between the head and the barrel. The children I saw struggling to move here and there range from babies to children of two or three years.”
Source – “The Holocaust by Bullets” by Father Patrick Desbois
Testimony from the book, “The Death Brigade” by Leon W. Wells
“I worked at the firm of Feder and Daumen at 5 Zrodlanej street with my two daughters. One was 17, the other 15. After the liquidation of the ghetto we were hidden in the company’s building. The director of this firm took everything away from us. Then the gestapo came and brought us here; my two children and I. This was a few days ago. Today they took us, together with you, to the sands, and I was separated from my two daughters. I, as everyone else, went down to the ravine. After a long time, about 15 people were selected and taken to the place where we left the women and children in the morning. And they were all, and my two daughters among them, lying dead … shot. What girls, beautiful, intelligent, what I wouldn’t have done for them… they told us to make a fire, and we threw all the bodies into it, my children, too.”
“The SS shot a woman. The woman’s child is sitting next to her in a puddle of blood with her head on her dead mother’s breast, sleeping. An SS man wakes the child by whipping her. She must go with the other children to the sands. The child screams in terror, “mother, it hurts!” the child gets up and starts to run, and the SS man goes after her. The child yells, and the murderer decides to shoot her on the spot. He reaches for his pistol, and shoots.”
If you’ve read this far, you understand why the Jewish People must have their own country with a powerful army to defend it, and why compromising its security is simply not an option.
You understand that when the Iranians threaten to annihilate us, and the Arabs (and Palestinians) threaten to push us into the sea — we take those threats seriously, because we’ve experience what happens when those threats are ignored.
You understand why we must always control our destiny in Israel and why we can never allow an armed Palestinian state to exist in our land. Doing so would be like walking to the execution pits or the gas chambers, and we will never again do that.
Finally, you understand why we must always remain vigilant to stamp out any trace of violence or persecution based on race, religion or personal beliefs and orientations.
The Holocaust has taught us what unspeakable horrors man is capable of, and it is a lesson that we must never forget, so that it never is allowed to happen again, to anyone, anywhere.
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