As students attend classes online and have seen most of their social activities canceled, it’s easy for the days of the week to all blend together. Don’t even get me started on remembering the calendar date.
But if there’s one day to not only remember but never forget, it’s today. It’s the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nissan: Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For many Jews, the day is not a day of history; it’s one of memory. Our families were gathered up, forced into labor camps, starved, experimented on, murdered and discarded without proper burials. Today’s Jewish population would be over double the current number were it not for the Holocaust.
Just over a year ago, I traveled to Poland and saw the concentration and death camps myself. I saw the conditions the Nazis forced Jews to live in, the bunkers and inhumane bathrooms. I saw the items stolen from my relatives before they were murdered: shoes, suitcases, jewelry, clothes, even their own hair. I bore witness to the gas chambers, ovens where my family’s bodies were burned, the mountain ashes that once contained the souls of my relatives. These observations were not museum artifacts for me. They were memories of my family.
But what moved me most was not any of these horrific sights. It was a memorial sculpture in the center of Warsaw. I remember standing there in the below-freezing weather long after sunset. Before me the “Monument to the Ghetto Heroes” stood, a memorial constructed in 1948 using material the Nazis ordered in anticipation for their victory monument. It depicts the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The Jewish identity is not synonymous with victimhood. It’s one of triumph and perseverance. In fact, today, the day of remembrance, has a special significance: It is the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when a Jewish resistance force, led by Mordecai Anielewicz, surprised the Nazis on the day they were set to begin liquidating the ghetto and its prisoners. The uprising, which lasted a month, forced Nazi soldiers in the beginning to retreat outside the ghetto . The Jews knew they stood no chance against a disciplined army, but their resistance is a testament to their courage and bravery.
Today is not just “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” The day’s full name is “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” Too often we forget to emphasize the latter portion of the name. Held year after year on the anniversary of the Uprising, the day is not just for commemorating the murdered victims. Today, we also cherish the survivors and the resistors. We thank those who chose to risk their lives to save those who would have otherwise perished.
There’s a lot to take away from the memorial day during these alarming times. There are, of course, the overarching morals to resist injustice at its inception, to practice love and not hate and to keep bearing testimony. These are important lessons every child should be taught.
But rarely are children taught to look at survivors as more than victims whose fates could have been prevented. Survivors are so much more than that. We would be lucky to display a mere fraction of the perseverance they exhibited.
It is only fitting that this be the last column of my undergraduate career, one that has had its highs and lows, and one that ends on a grim note with an opaque future.
As the famous saying goes, “the same water that softens the potato also hardens the egg.” In other words, it’s the person’s character — not their circumstances — that defines their outcome. So as we continue the fight against the coronavirus and are forced to physically distance ourselves from loved ones, we must keep moving forward as the Holocaust survivors did: in the spirit of perseverance, not victimhood.
Shauli Bar-On is a senior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” ran every other Tuesday.