This week, we mark Yom HaShoah (April 15-16) -- Holocaust Remembrance Day -- a day when Jewish communities gather together to commemorate the day through worship, music and stories from survivors and lighting yellow candles as symbol of the living memories of the victims. Yom HaShoah is a time to remember and reflect. It is also a time to also recommitment ourselves to fighting bigotry and anti-Semitism. And, for me, Yom HaShoah is a time to think about the notion of Jewish peoplehood.
Roughly six years ago, when I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to travel to Poland with my synagogue. We had a sort of exchange program going: each year, Jewish students from Eastern Europe would come to Tampa and spend the week touring the city and interacting with our Jewish community and then, months later, a group of students from our temple youth group would travel to Poland and the once-exchange students would share their city and their community with us. The trip was everything you might expect it to be -- heartbreaking, moving, thoughtful, meaningful, inspiring, and even, at times, fun.
I remember how surprised I was when we first arrived at Auschwitz. Every picture or video I had ever seen from the Holocaust was in black and white, and as I stood at the camps and saw the green grass and red brick buildings, I was taken aback. While intellectually I knew that life does not happen in black and white, I think I assumed the Holocaust had happened in black and white as a way to distance myself from this heinous, terrifying time in history. Seeing the camps in full color forced me to see the humanity (or lack thereof) and reality of this tragedy. It reminded me that the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust - and the millions of others who died during Word War II - are not just a one number, but individual human beings who each had a life and a family and had their individual lives taken from them.
I remember walking through the camps with our Jewish, Eastern European friends thinking, “They [the Nazis] didn’t win.” Even though so many millions of people were killed, the fact that young Jewish teenagers from across the world were walking through concentration camps together as free people meant that the Nazis had lost. They did not extinguish the Jewish people, as the flames of the yahrzeit candles we light remind us.
This year, my reflections on Yom HaShoah have new meaning – I am working for and in the Jewish community to make the world more just. In this work, and in thinking about and mourning the Holocaust, the profound realization I had when walking through Auschwitz stays with me: Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel live.