Remembering the Shoah Eighty Years Later: The Privilege of Survival
Rabbi J.B. Sacks
April 24, 2022
My family has recorded well over 300 family members who died during the Shoah. So Yom HaShoah has deep importance for me, and being together with you, and commemorating it together adds to its meaning.
According to Social Equality Ministry, 15,324 Holocaust survivors died last year.
The number of survivors who can continue to serve as witnesses continues decreasing.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has shown that two-thirds of American millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz is. In fact, about one-quarter do not know what the Holocaust is.
So let me begin by presenting a snapshot of 80 years ago, because it was a devastating year among the devastating years of the Shoah.
Eighty years ago January 20, Nazi leaders at the Wannsee Conference planned the Final Solution, the destruction of all of the Jews of Europe.
Eighty years ago January 16, deportations began from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmno, where at least 167,000 Jews were murdered.
Eighty years ago on March 1, a second camp was opened at Auschwitz, called Auschwitz II or Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gassings there began in May and became systematic beginning July 4. On June 11, Auschwitz camp authorities established Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, one of 44 known subcamps of Auschwitz.
Eighty years ago on March 17 the deportations of Jews from Lublin and Lvov began. They were taken to Belzec, where at least 434,508 Jews were killed in gas chambers with carbon monoxide gas between March 17 and December 31 of that year.
Eighty years ago on March 27 systematic deportations of the Jews of France began from the Compiegne and Drancy detention camps. They were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Eighty years ago on May 7, gassing operations began at Sobibor, where at least 250,000 Jews were murdered.
Eighty years ago on June 1, Westerbork was turned into a transit camp. Beginning July 4, over 100,000 Jews, including Anne Frank, were transported from Westerbork to the death camps.
Eighty years ago July 22, the deportation of some 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began. About 35,000 Jews were murdered during those operations. All together, some 700,000 to 900,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka.
Eighty years ago beginning July 28, the Jews of the Minsk ghetto were murdered in mass shootings over four days.
So this is what I think we need to invoke when we commemorate the Shoah.
To help us invoke, I recall Gerda Weissman Klein, a survivor who passed away this past April 3, at the age of 97. In her memoir, called All But My Life, she recalls the following incident that has stuck with me, and shaped me:
“Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend.”
Gerda exclaimed that “Survival is both an exalted privilege and a painful burden.”
And Gerda asserted that “My experience has taught me that all of us have a reservoir of untapped strength that comes to the fore at moments of crisis.”
Gerda spoke about her fellow inmates: “They faced what the morning would bring with the only weapon they had–their love for each other. Love is great, love is the foundation of nobility, it conquers obstacles and is a deep well of truth and strength.”
And Gerda encouraged each and everyone one of us: “I pray you never stand at any crossroads in your own lives, but if you do, if the darkness seems so total, if you think there is no way out, remember, never ever give up. The darker the night, the brighter the dawn, and when it gets really, really dark, this is when one sees the true brilliance of the stars.”
May we remember the Holocaust, honoring each and every story.
May we do so even with our last raspberry.
May we remember that whether it is Ukraine, Israel, here in the U.S., or elsewhere, it may feel like a dark night, but now we may see the true brilliance of the stars.
May we bear the exalted privilege of our people’s survival with dignity.
May we continue to tap into our reservoir of love to combat all the hate that continues to threaten goodness and decency.
May this commemoration today be mirrored in the commemoration we do every day, through the telling of stories and, most importantly, the spreading of goodness.
Invocation delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks at the Yom HaShoah observance of the Jewish Federation of the Desert, held at the Palm Desert campus of UC-Riverside on April 24, 2022