Sunday was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. In its honor, I’d like to share the following speech, which I delivered at a school assembly yesterday.
Let me take you back to June of 1908.
An Austrian artist has just been rejected from art school. He channels all his anger into a journal. He writes about the people whom he sees as the “other” – the people who are different from him, who seem to be popping up in all the negative parts of his life. They’re the people whose beliefs seem incompatible with his own, whose ways of life make him uncomfortable. The artist’s journal becomes a book, and the book begins selling, and before long, the “other” becomes hated not by one man, but by hundreds and thousands.
And so then, something else happens. Let me take you forward – it’s June of 1941.
The artist’s vision – a world without the other – has become a reality. The other is sent away in droves. In the shadowy barracks of Treblinka, the other cannot pray out loud – a siddur, a prayerbook, is a death certificate. In the snowy winter fields of Majdanek, the other can not eat – a loaf of bread is almost impossible to find. And in the dark, echoey chambers of Auchwitz-Birkenau, the other walks in, and can never walk out.
Now travel with me to my visit to Poland last summer. June of 2010.
At Treblinka, where those barracks had once silenced our people, I pray – with my friends from across North America – louder than I’ve ever prayed before – yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah. And at Majdanek, I open up a granola bar, and eat it – because I’m hungry. And at Auschwitz – in the valley of the shadow of death – I retrace their steps, foot by foot, breath by breath, and walk into the gas chambers. I touch the scrapings on the wall, left there by mothers – frantic – fathers – powerless – toddlers – petrified. But after I walk into the gas chambers…I walk out.
We are here. We are the living, breathing proof of the tenacity of the human spirit. We’re free to pray and free to eat, and free to walk and free to live.
But that freedom is not without sacrifice – we cannot embrace that liberty without taking pause. We, the living, are responsible for something. Our duty – to our children, to our parents, to each other, and to the memories of those who starved in the barracks of Treblinka – is to not fear and to not hate – the other.
Today, in the wake of both Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and yesterday’s events in Pakistan, let us not only remember our own peoples’ suffering. Let us also embrace our power to live purposeful lives, to sanctify memory, and to build a society in which people are people, love is love, skin color is only an indication of skin color, and no one ever again will be the other.