International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the United Nations to commemorate the deaths of six million Jews and three million others at the hands of the Nazi murder machine during World War II.
The date designated, Jan. 27, is the anniversary of the day in 1945 that the Red Army of Russia liberated Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious of the death camps.
It is fitting and proper that the world remembers this low point in human conduct.
To be sure, cold-blooded homicide is reprehensible, no matter the circumstances or the body count.
When it is motivated by ideology, there is an added layer of contempt that inheres. And when it is credited with the marriage of technology and murder, an innovation in detached cruelty, it should be considered a cautionary tale for humanity.
But therein lies the hazard of this solemn occasion.
The combination of factors so extreme and, in combination, unprecedented might lead the post-Holocaust world to consider the conduct of the Nazis to be a one-off, an awful confluence of influences never to be repeated.
The temptation is to view any subsequent cataclysm with the cynical justification, “At least it wasn’t the Holocaust.”
Especially as the survivors and their liberators dwindle in number, the immediacy of this massive crime is likely to be relegated to monuments and museums – important in their own right, but inadequate alone to prevent recurrence.
In order to remind this generation (and those in the future) of the depths to which we as human beings can descend, there are two other kinds of remembrances that are necessary.
Every community that suffered a loss must have its own Remembrance Day. The largest single community, of course, is the Jewish people.
On the Hebrew calendar, as well as on the calendar of the Jewish national homeland in Israel, a day proximate to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising anniversary is designated Yom Ha-Sho’ah u-Gevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Day).
It is a time to mourn for our loss, but also to be reminded of the resistance among the targeted population. Resistance came in all expressions, from organized paramilitary action to the righteousness of those who protected their neighbors to the plaintive declaration of faith by those left no choice but to succumb.
This day is uniquely Jewish in its expression, certainly not without its own memorial structures, but reliant on the particular testimony about the loss of people and culture erased by the Nazis.
Perhaps the most compelling custom is the siren that sounds throughout Israel at noon on that day. Citizens stop wherever they are, even pulling cars to the side of the road and stopping buses on their routes, so that everyone can stand in silent attention to remember.
Almost 40 other countries have a designated day for remembrance. On it, the communities of faith and the military heroes of liberation who fought the Nazis and who took refuge after the war are honored for their unique experiences that reside continually in the history of each country.
On those days, many local communities focus on the lessons of that time with public ceremonies, educational programs and government acknowledgment. Other communities should recognize that they were targeted as well – the Roma, LGBT individuals, the disabled.
The other kind of remembrance necessary is the one that touches the heart of the individual. Faith communities, in particular, have memorial practices designed to keep the consciousness of loss alive.
The National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs of Conservative Judaism initiated the “yellow candle” program. A yellow-tinted candle, reminiscent of the colored badge worn by Jews under Nazi rule, burns for the 24 hours of Yom Ha-Shoah u-Gevurah in Jewish homes. The practice draws from the custom of lighting a colorless candle for the 24 hours during the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
Candles may play a role in other traditions. Prayers and introspection in homes and houses of worship can serve this purpose.
A conversation with a friend or acquaintance, with or without a personal connection to the Holocaust, can keep alive the consciousness of the individual’s responsibility to resist the immorality that typified the Nazis.
We live in a world where there is no shortage of remembrances vying for our attention. Certainly, if we could learn the essential lesson of prevention from each one, then we would live in a world more secure for ourselves and our children.
Memory itself may not be sufficient to honor the victims of crimes and atrocities, but without it, preserved and promoted at every stratum of the human family, there is a virtual guarantee that they will occur again.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.