I recently chose to go to Jerusalem for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I was among a small delegation of “Christian Friends of Yad Vashem” who were there to pledge anew our commitment to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust are left in the annals of history, never to be repeated again against Jews or anyone else.
As a young Christian leader – just 30 years old – I’m especially concerned that we aren’t effectively educating the next generation on the sheer evil that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.
The 20th century was beautiful in its innovation and terrible in its barbarity. It was the century that produced great benefit to the human race through inventions like electric power, the polio vaccine, and the discovery of antibiotics. But it was also a time of unprecedented horror, of economic turmoil, and of a depth of depravity that mankind had rarely experienced before.
Too often, tragedies like the Holocaust are reduced to a series of numbers; the number of Jews killed, the number of people held in a certain concentration camp, the number of people whose lives were forever altered. But even a number like “six million,” does not have power alone to touch our hearts. What really moves us are the stories behind the numbers.
I came to Israel to learn those stories so that I can pass them on to another generation.
I will never forget them.
One survivor said, “I don’t have a single photo of my family … all I can remember is the horror in the eyes of my mother and brother.”
Another spoke of the moment when he realized his mother had vanished, never to be seen again, even as he heard the “whistle of bullets ringing” in his ears.
Another man said that he had lost his father, mother, brothers and sisters and he had been left to live his life alone from his childhood, and another spoke of the irrevocable memory of watching evil men “scratching and tearing babies from their mothers’ arms.” He said, “Of our 80-member-family only two survived … [and] one-by-one my friends began to disappear.”
I broke down when I listened to an elderly man speak of his mother, Clara, who survived much terror only to die one night while he was sleeping. She had starved to death, and he – as a child – awakened to find her lifeless body. He said, through aged tears, “I had a mother for a very short time.”
Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, whom I sat behind at the national ceremony, spoke of losing his own family to a wooden synagogue chained shut and torched by the Nazis. He said, “I cannot forget for one moment the horror of the Holocaust…we have lost our best parents, our best sons and daughters.”
Stories like these bring this horrifying event off of the pages of history texts, and into our hearts. They help the next generation understand in a way that has the power to help prevent such tragedy.
It keeps us from having, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “eyes that failed to see” and “ears that failed to hear” and ensures that “lessons of the past have been learned.”
These lessons must be learned, but I wonder if they are being learned?
After all, April saw a shocking rise in ethnic hatred with the attempted assassination of a Jewish, Ukrainian mayor in one of that nation’s largest cities, and in another Ukrainian city masked men distributed pamphlets requesting that all Jews pay a fine and register themselves.
Even in the United States we heard in horror of the murder of a doctor, his 14-year-old grandson, and a woman at the hands of a killer who specifically targeted a Jewish Community Center in Kansas.
And the rise in hatred hasn’t only been against Jews.
In fact, it was Jewish extremists that spray painted Graffiti on a mosque in Northern Israel recently, and Christians in one Syrian city were reported to have been crucified by Islamic extremists. In the Central African Republic a near holy war is breaking out between Christians and Muslims, and ancient tribal rivalries are destroying the earth’s newest nation, South Sudan.
How is that this terror can persist in the modern world?
Jerusalem, in its beauty and its pain, is itself analogous to the century in which the State of Israel was born.
We must tell these painful stories because, as one author has said, “If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
Yet with unlearned lessons, our world flings wildly toward more horror in places like the Central African Republic, Syria, and South Sudan.
We seem to be beginning the 21st century in another awful way after closing a century marked by the Holocaust, the Rwandan and Bosnian tragedies, and the shock of death marches and mass graves and unbridled evil.
We must pray for peace, but we must fight for it too.
All of us must chisel on our hearts the phrase, “never again.”