Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland. I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town. I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.
The theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape. Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.
It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.
After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.
Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews. Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.
The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important. I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.
It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world. If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.