Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was the Grand Rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland before World War II. Known as the ‘Children’s Rebbe,” his yeshiva (school for Torah study) was full of children who came to learn from him.
Tragically, Rabbi Shapira’s only son, his daughter-in-law, and his sister-in-law were all killed during the Nazi aerial bombing of Warsaw in September 1939. He was subsequently interned in the Warsaw Ghetto and wrote a book while in hiding during the uprising. Rabbi Shapira himself was killed during the uprising, but the manuscript was buried with other documents in a large milk canister. The canister was found by a construction worker after the war, and was sent to his brother who had moved to Israel before the war.
In this book titled Aish Kodesh (holy fire), Rabbi Shapira wrote an essay to commemorate the death of his son. In this essay he explained:
“A complete action is composed of intention and action. We see that in the binding of Isaac, Abraham had full intention to sacrifice his son to sanctify God’s name. But that action remained incomplete.
But any Jew who is killed because he is a Jew is an action that did not have intention. This is the completion of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham raised the knife over Isaac and the Nazis brought the knife down.”
This teaching takes on added significance knowing that the Piaseczno rebbe was writing this about his own children who were murdered in front of him. That page of my copy of Aish Kodesh is covered with the marks of my tears.
Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the Israeli national day of commemoration for the six million Jews who were muredered in the Holocaust, Rabbi Shapira and his family among them.
It is difficult to believe that the world could ever forget the horrors of the Holocaust, yet eighty years later antisemitism is again on the rise. Neo Nazis are becoming powerful, and new forms of Jew-hatred are also emerging. Rather than see the modern state of Israel as an opportunity to fix the sins of the past, far too many are using “anti-Zionism” as a mask to hide their hatred of God’s chosen people.
It is too easy to dismiss Holocaust Remembrance Day as a relic of the past with no relevance to current events. It is too easy to write it off as a sin performed by a maniacal nation that is distant in both time and space. It is too easy to say that the Holocaust is not relevant to me.
But the Holocaust was the most horrific act ever carried out by humanity. It was the calculated murder of six million people simply because, as a nation, they represent God’s presence in the world. And therefore, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said:
The Holocaust has become more than a Jewish tragedy. It has become, for the West, a defining symbol of man’s inhumanity to man…
The imperative of remembrance never ends. Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East – all these and many others are our reminders that ethnic and religious conflict still scar our world.
Holocaust Remembrance Day does not imply that the Shoah was the only tragedy of modern history. To the contrary, it reminds us that, unchecked, hatred can take many forms and claim many kinds of victims.
Our best defence is not abstract principle but specific memory, the knowledge of what happened once and must never happen again.
“The imperative of remembrance never ends.” So what can we do to remember the Holocaust? I would like to recommend that every person take on a symbolic gesture as a reminder of the vow, “Never Again.” This could be as simple as lighting a memorial candle or reciting a chapter of Psalms. But do something, because in order to ensure that the Holocaust never happens again we must not allow it to be forgotten.
While we must we must remember the Holocaust and its lessons, and take action to prevent similar atrocities from happening, there is reason for hope.
I’d like to return to the teaching of Rabbi Shapira that I mentioned above, which took on even more personal significance for me last year. I have the honor to have a friend who is a young German Christian. As a young man, Alex discovered that his grandfather had been an officer in the SS. The guilt was too much for him to bear, and so he moved to Israel. He has spent the past 13 years volunteering and helping Holocaust survivors, some of whom may have suffered directly at the hands of his grandfather.
Alex is a wonderful friend, and so I was thrilled when he invited me to the circumcision ceremony for his son. Ironically, the circumcision of my friend’s son took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
I was enjoying the ceremony until the moment the mohel, the person performing the circumcision, picked up the knife and began approaching the baby boy. The lesson from the Piesetzner Rebbe flashed through my mind and caused an intesne emotional reaction within me. As I watched the mohel, knife in hand, approach my friend, I had a vision of his grandfather in full Nazi regalia with a long knife in his hand. How many Jews had my friend’s grandfather murdered?
And now, the great-grandson of that Nazi was lying helpless in his father’s lap, waiting for a Jew with a knife. But instead of death, my friend’s intention was that the Jew’s knife would make his son holy! I couldn’t help but feel that things had come full circle.
Even in the face of unimaginable evil, there is still hope for redemption and healing. We must never forget the atrocities of the past, but we must also remember that the power of intention and action can be used to bring holiness into the world. Let us take these lessons to heart and commit ourselves to creating a better, more just world for all.