“Lizkor ve lo lishkoakh.”
The Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Ceremony on campus started off with the solemn reminder, “Remember, and never forget.”
At 10 am, sirens wailed throughout the country, bringing the entire nation to a halt for two minutes of silence. From north to south, people paused to grieve the loss of millions of lives, to remember the hundreds of Holocaust survivors who live with the physical and psychological scars of the past, and to renew their commitment to ensure that such a tragedy never befalls the Jewish nation again. My head hung low as I silently contemplated the sombreness of the occasion.
After prayers were read from the Tanakh, we took our seats. Students delivered moving poems in Hebrew and English, honouring the lives of those who died and exhorting the listeners to cherish life and cling to hope even in overwhelming darkness. The theme of life triumphing over death was complemented by the majestic tree behind the stage, with the petals of its glorious flowers falling gently to the ground, never to grow again but giving life to young seedlings and fresh grass. I found it a poignant metaphor encapsulating the message of the ceremony – that the memory of the fallen should inspire us to live meaningful lives.
A professor was invited to share his thoughts. His words were heavy-laden with sorrow as he described his childhood as “one long Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony”. His family shared an apartment in Tel Aviv with Holocaust survivors, who often relived the horrors of the concentration camps whenever they saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. One of those survivors had been part of a community of Jews who had been herded together like animals, made to stand in front of a giant pit, and struck down by the axes of Nazi soldiers who wouldn’t even “waste their ammunition” on Jews. The survivor was knocked unconscious, and had to crawl out of a mass grave in the middle of the night when he came to.
Sorrow turned to indignation as the professor scoffed at the idea that the people of Europe were unaware of the daily atrocities perpetrated against Jews. His voice rose in fury as he lambasted the governments of several countries that had denied entry to Jewish refugees in the 1940s. But he also paid tribute to those who had saved the Jews, even at great risk to their own lives. I was amazed when one of my friends told me after the ceremony that her paternal grandparents had saved hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, and her maternal grandparents had sheltered a Jewish family on their farm throughout the entire duration of the war. As I have asked myself before, I asked myself again: “What would I do in such a situation?”
The passionate speech of the professor was followed by the tear-jerking reflections of a student who had visited one of the concentration camps in Poland. “Let no one say that some were heroes and some were martyrs,” he said. “Every hero was a martyr, and every martyr was a hero.” His voice quivered as he compared the simple actions of Jews in the concentration camps to the valiant exploits of heroes, whether it was the sharing of bread despite their excruciating hunger, or raising each others spirits with the words, “It’s Shabbat, my friend.” Imagine that – for many Israelis today, Shabbat is the time to hit the nightclubs and laze on the beach. In those days, it was a rare sliver of sunshine in the midst of immense darkness.
My soul was burdened throughout the ceremony, but my tears only flowed at the end as we rose to sing HaTikvah. This melancholic national anthem always sends shivers down my spine, but the song held much greater meaning today. After commemorating one of the worst tragedies in human history, we left the past behind us and looked forward to the Hope of a future where freedom, peace and justice reign.