Each year on Yom Hashoah, we are called on to do something that sounds very simple—“remember.” But in fact, it is much more than just a simple task of recollection; it is a moral imperative, as sacred and as holy as a commandment. We must remember the innocent victims of the Holocaust who cannot speak for themselves, whose memory calls down to us through the decades for justice. We must teach our children and the children of the world what happened to the Jews of the Holocaust, so that such evil is never revisited on our people or on any other people.
Ever since I was a young boy, I heard stories about my great-grandmother, who lived in the Ukraine—then part of Galicia—when the Nazis invaded in 1941. Shortly after the occupation began, SS stormtroopers ordered my great-grandmother to gather all her children and grandchildren on her porch. The troopers came to the porch and instructed the family to go with them. My great-grandmother refused, saying, “I will not leave.” The troopers proceeded to gun down the 17 souls who stood on that porch, killing them all.
Many Jews have stories like this. And though it is painful to remember and talk about, we must continue to do so, because over time the world forgets. In 2013, a survey of more than 53,000 respondents in 101 countries found that only 54 percent of the world’s adults had heard of the Holocaust—and of those, one-third believed it was either a myth or had been greatly exaggerated. Those are dispiriting numbers and they remind us of the job we have to do.
So when my wife and children and I travel to Europe, we make a point of visiting the ghettos. Whether it’s in Venice or Prague, the vast majority of the visitors are Jewish, which gives me great pride that we are still teaching our children the tragic lessons of the Holocaust.
And when I visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington and see schoolchildren from across the country and around the world—many of whom are not Jewish—it keeps me hopeful that we are still teaching the children of the world. They are all confronted with that pile of the shoes collected from the camps; that singular image of the inhumanity of the crimes committed against the Jewish people
“One day soon we will not have Holocaust survivors to help keep the memory alive.”
In recent years, the importance of Holocaust remembrance has been amplified by the fact that we continue to lose so many members of that first generation of survivors. Last July, we lost the incomparable Elie Wiesel, who dedicated his life to giving voice to those who—unlike him—were not lucky enough to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. He believed that describing the ghastly details of a single night at Treblinka could “shake humanity from its indifference…to make sure the torturer never tortures again.”
Today there are fewer than 100,000 Holocaust survivors left in the world, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. So the burden is even greater on my generation and my children’s generation to commemorate Yom Hashoah, because one day soon we will not have Holocaust survivors to help keep the memory alive. We will have to speak out even louder and be even more vigilant against any effort to minimize or erase the Holocaust in our history books and our memory. We will have to work even harder to shake the conscience of the world.
It is fitting that Yom Hashoah falls so soon after Passover, a holiday whose purpose is to remember and instruct future generations of Jews about the pain of slavery. Like the Jews who first entered the Holy Land after escaping from Egypt and wandering 40 years to forget the pain of slavery, we are now called on to keep the same of memory alive, though we are not witnesses. We are now called on to teach the world the meaning of the Shoah [Holocaust], this year and every year henceforward, so that we are never witnesses to such darkness in the world again.
Charles E. Schumer, the senior U.S. senator from New York, is the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate.