The Shoah Eighty Years Later: Prevention, Resilience, Protest

The Shoah Eighty Years Later: Prevention, Resilience, Protest

 (NOTE: On January 29, 2023 Rabbi Sacks represented Am HaYam at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration of the Jewish Federation of the Desert, held at the main auditorium of University of California-Riverside, Palm Desert campus. Having served the rabbinic presence on the organizing committee, Rabbi Sacks was asked to deliver the invocation. His remarks follow:)

My family has recorded well over 300 family members who died during the Shoah. So International Holocaust Remembrance Day has deep importance for me, and being together with you, and commemorating it together, adds to its meaning.

I am here to give the invocation. But we should ask: “Today, what is it we are to invoke?”

In thinking about this, let us consider the following. According to the Social Equality Ministry, 15,324 Holocaust survivors died in 2021. 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 was.

So with that backdrop, I begin by presenting a reality snapshot of eighty years ago.

Eighty years ago, beginning February 5, German SS and police officials began liquidating the Bialystok ghetto, where my mother’s family lived. They killed approximately 1,000 Jews and deported 10,000 to the Treblinka extermination camp, where most were killed immediately. Later, the remaining 40,000 Jews were deported to killing centers or forced-labor camps.

Eighty years ago March saw the beginning of the deportations of Jews from Greece to Auschwitz. By August 49,900 Jews were gone.

Eighty years ago April the Bermuda Conference convened as delegations from the United States and Great Britain discussed the problem of refugees from Nazi-occupied countries, but actually did nothing. As U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler protested, “If 6,000,000 cattle had been slaughtered, there would have been more interest. A way would have been found.”[1]

And ways were found. Eighty years ago King Boris of Bulgaria informed Germany that he would not deport the Jews of Sofia. And eighty years ago King Christian X of Denmark personally financed the rescue of every Danish Jew who was in the country at the time.

Eighty years ago,the Nazis declared Berlin to be Judenfrei, cleansed of Jews. And eighty years ago, the Nazis celebrated that the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads, had murdered more than one million Jews, by forcing them to dig big pits, after which they lined up the Jews and shot them.

Eighty years ago, exterminations ceased at Treblinka, but only after some 870,000 were dehumanized and murdered.

And after the order came to liquidate all the remaining ghettos, the ghettos of Krakow, Tarnów, Lemberg, Vilna, Minsk, and Lida, and the last remnants of the robust communal life in those cities, were gone. Many were sent to the Sobibor extermination camp; others were transported to the Kaiserwald and Vaivara concentration camps, and to other camps in Latvia and Estonia.

Eighty years ago was the Aktion Erntefest, Operation Harvest Festival, in which Jews involved in forced-labor projects in Trawniki, Poniatowa, and Majdanek were rounded up and shot in prepared ditches outside the fence near the crematorium at Majdanek. Music played through the loudspeakers to drown out the noise of the mass shootings. Some 42,000 Jews were killed in two days.

So this is what I think we need to keep in mind, and to remember,

And now, with these images and memories in mind,

let us invoke using the words and wisdom of survivors.

From Survivor Bill Morgan: “You remove hate from people’s heart and replace it with love through education.”

 From Naomi Warren: “It is important to understand that big changes, the kind that transform the way human beings handle being human, start with small changes.”

 From Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

From Boris Cyrulnik: “Resilience means renaître de sa souffrance (reborn from one’s own pain), it corresponds to the ability to rebound from adversities, overcome them, and come out stronger, even transformed.”

So, may we endeavor to educate ourselves and others about the reality of the Shoah, and about the power of love and resilience, and may we help to overcome hate by focusing on the small changes that matter.

May we prevent injustice when we can, and may there never be a time when we fail to protest.

In the face of rising antisemitism, racism, and queerphobia, may we show renaitre de sa souffrance, may be rebound, overcome–and may we and our society come out stronger and transformed.


[1] Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust, p. 16.


  1. Brenda Rich says:

    Took me awhile to open the website and read your words. How moving this was and emotional. More people need to be made aware and to the need to “educate ourselves and others about the reality of the Shoah.” And the time has come to stop hating and be acceptable of all. Kindness needs to enter back into our lives.