Thoughts on Yom HaShoa – Holocaust Memorial Day

by Andrew Getraer, Executive Director, Rutgers Hillel

April 24, 2017


I will never forget the day that my wife Jean and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a slate grey day in late fall/early winter. There was no color in the sky, on the ground, anywhere. No life.

After the museum and tour of Auschwitz we walked alone the nearly two miles to Birkenau, Auschwitz’s partner camp. We didn’t see a soul. The long entry road leading up to the gates of Birkenau was ominous and terror inducing, even then. Along that road, we were startled to come across the completely flat, desiccated corpse of a large dog. Death was telling us “This my realm.”

We entered the death camp in eerie silence and alone. There were no staff, no exhibits, no one to guide us. Just the two of us alone, on 400 acres of abandoned extermination camp, where at least 2.5M people had been murdered.

The gate tower was open and we entered, alone, walked up the stairs and into several rooms. They were empty, except for an occasional chair. In one room there was a dead rat. Death still lives there, in every nook and cranny.

We left the entry gate and walked into the camp proper, to see acres and acres and acres of what had been barracks, housing tens of thousands of people, piled on top of each other like cordwood. There were the remains of train tracks where selections for life and death were made. And in the near distance, the crematoria.

The uniqueness of Birkenau is that it appears untouched. The terrain is the same. There were no accommodations for tourists, no bathrooms or exhibits. Just the raw ruins and traces of the Holocaust and genocide committed there. Ponds of human ashes remain among the ruins of gas chambers and crematoria, where millions of human beings were disposed of like so much trash. Places where SS doctors carried out selections, roads where entire families arrived and were marked for death, where prisoner-slaves were beaten to death, or where men, women and children just dropped dead of starvation and exhaustion. Every inch, every scrap of dirt, a witness to torture, murder, and depravity.

At some point the Soviets (what we used to call the Russians) had built a kind of memorial. I think it was near the ash ponds. It was totally out of place. Nothing belongs there except death and its witnesses.

Yom Hashoa, recently passed, Holocaust Memorial Day, is a day dedicated to remembering. But we remember every day. We will never forget what was done to our people. Yes, millions of others were murdered alongside us. The horror engulfed all humanity. But Jews, uniquely, were targeted for complete extermination. There are still fewer Jews in the world today than there were in 1939.

Jews learned two lessons from the Shoah.
1) We will never again allow ourselves to be powerless, living and dying at the whim of others.
2) We will never allow the world to be indifferent to the suffering of anyone, as the world was indifferent to us.