Why do we remember the Holocaust?

The conical Hall of Names near the end of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, shows hundreds of personal pictures of those who perished during the Holocaust. (Courtesy photo)

The conical Hall of Names near the end of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, shows hundreds of personal pictures of those who perished during the Holocaust. (Courtesy photo)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- The U.S. Congress has established this week, April 15-22, as our annual Days of Remembrance, a time to commemorate the atrocities of the Holocaust. During this somber week of remembrance, we remember the victims and honor the survivors of the Nazi's systematic persecution and annihilation of six million European Jews from 1933-1945. Throughout this week and especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah in Hebrew), which begins the evening of April 18 and ends the evening of April 19, we commit ourselves to prevent such horrific genocide from ever occurring again.

Why do we remember such despicable acts, intense suffering, and cruelty that were the Holocaust? The reason is as simple as it is excruciatingly painful: despite many who have and continue to stand against tyranny, hatred, intolerance, and unfathomable human cruelty, genocides continue to occur.

As a college student in the 1970's I remember visiting the Nazi death camp Dachau outside of Munich. The human ovens, the piles of victims' shoes, and the horrifying pictures of emaciated bodies burned permanent images in my memory, scars that have continued to cry out, "How could people do this?" Yet, tragically, even since that visit to Dachau over 35 years ago, genocides have continued. Tragically, the world has witnessed the unfathomable horrors of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Darfur, and still others.

Why do we remember the Holocaust?

Simply, we remember because we must never forget the inhumanity of which humans are capable. We must also remember in order to call forth our human capacities for great acts of heroism, courage, and self-sacrifice. When Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, was dedicated on March 15, 2005, the President of Israel, Moshe Katzav, said that the museum would serve as an "important sign post to all of humankind, a sign post that warns how short the distance is between hatred and murder, between racism and genocide." These Days of Remembrance call us to remember such warnings.

While studying in Jerusalem last spring, I was fortunate to visit Yad Vashem, an overwhelmingly powerful presentation of hatred, destruction, and personal resistance through film, pictures, personal memorabilia, and artifacts. Like the excellent Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Israel's much larger Holocaust Museum stirs grief and anger deep within. For me the most intense part of the museum is the multi-story, conical shaped Hall of Names, in which one looks up at hundreds of victim's faces. These pictures are not of emaciated extermination camp prisoners, but of vibrant people full of life and love, hopes and dreams. Looking up, one can't help but remember the great tragedy of human loss, for as far up as your eye's can focus are portraits of families, anniversary celebrations, beautiful little infants who were the pride of their parents, and joyous brides and grooms. As I studied the haunting pictures and imagined the lives these millions of people never were able to fulfill, I kept asking to myself, "How could people let this happen?"

Then, as I was departing Yad Vashem, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the memories of those who did whatever they could to resist the Holocaust: those who are now honored with the title the "Righteous Among the Nations." Memorialized with trees and markers and statues, the heroic efforts of those who risked their lives to hide Jews, those who fed and clothed Jews in danger, those who transported Jews to safety, and those who provided false identification papers to save others' lives are all honored. For example, I read about the Dutch village of Nieuwlande, which in 1942 and 1943 collectively resolved that every household would hide at least one Jew. All 117 inhabitants of that village were recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations". Amidst such persecution and murder, these people who chose to intervene and help others give me great hope for our future.

This year's U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum theme for Days of Remembrance is "Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue". This theme commemorates the actions of rescuers during the Holocaust; that is, ordinary people--like the people in the Dutch village of Nieuwlande--who chose to intervene and help others, despite severe risk. In so doing they demonstrate the power that each of us has to make a difference. Why do we remember the Holocaust? As this year's theme and those recognized at Yad Vashem as "Righteous Among the Nations" remind us, we remember the Holocaust in order that we might make a positive difference and help prevent the human tragedy of genocide from reoccurring.