May 2, 2011

Annual Gathering of Remembrance

Annual Gathering of Remembrance, Temple Emanu-El  (photo by Melanie Einzig)

Yesterday we held our annual Holocaust commemoration day with more than 2000 people in attendance.  The following are the remarks that I delivered:

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, I welcome you to this annual gathering, where we assemble to be alone, where we join together to find solitude, where we find strength in our numbers to confront the lonely task of remembering.  A year has past since we last gathered here, and in this year the world has changed, our families have changed, we have changed.  One thing that remains constant, however, is our stone-like resolve to keep a place in our hearts and our minds that is reserved for our deepest reflection – a place to which we return each year to remember what we have lost – what we have lost as individuals and what we have lost as a community. 

Although it may be possible to identify the losses we have suffered personally and the losses that befell our families and mutilated our communities, no one can possibly quantify the vast potential that was denied our people and robbed from the world.  Today we mourn our private losses and we mourn our collective loss that grows in time as we consider generations that were never born, creativity that was never expressed, achievement that could never be realized.

Yet in this crowded place of solitude and memory, we reflect today not only on loss but also on the uplifting story of rebirth and renewal. As we look around us at this room, filled with more than 2000 people, we marvel at the exponential power of survival.  And we know that it belonged to the responsibility of those who survived and those who followed them to remember those who perished, to learn about the monstrous crime that was their murder, and to identify and bring to justice those who committed that crime.  And although that effort was incomplete and flawed, it is important that we recall it and that we recognize what was achieved.  And so today we reflect on the defeat of those who sought to destroy us and we recall the moments of Justice that punctuated the postwar period. 

This year, we note that sixty-five years have passed since the victorious allies placed the Nazi leaders in the dock at Nuremberg, and fifty years since the still young State of Israel, through a combination of chutzpah and heroics, delivered to the glass booth of justice Adolf Eichmann, the man who helped to organize the murder of its people.

Within months of the end of the war, with the earth still smoldering and the dimension of the destruction still undigested, the victors devised a code to judge the offences of their enemies – including crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.  Although imperfect, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg succeeded in documenting the deeds of the Nazis, preserving crucial records for future historians, and removing from the earth some of the perpetrators of those immense crimes.   Exactly 65 years and two weeks ago, those assembled in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg heard the testimony of the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess.  In a series of chillingly straightforward answers to simply posed questions, Hoess described the killing process at Auschwitz.  With his testimony and that of the others, the court and the rest of the world learned of the colossal crimes of the Holocaust.

Almost as an antidote, and certainly as a respite from the rigors of the trial and the horrors revealed there, the prosecutors and the staff of the tribunal attended a concert at the Nuremberg Opera house on May 7, 1946, one week less than 65 years ago.  On the program was an orchestra of ex-inmates of ghettoes and concentration camps, and among the performers was the dear mother of Rita Lerner, who has served as the co-chair of this commemoration for so many years.  Henny Durmashkin Gurko and her colleagues in the orchestra, dressed in striped uniforms, gave powerful and eloquent expression to their survival.   A sign stood before them on the stage and announced in Hebrew “Am Yisroel Chai.”

Exactly on this day, May 1st, 50 years ago, in the theater that became a courtroom in Jerusalem, converted for the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a slim young man with thick dark hair took the witness stand.  In accented English he told the story of his experiences during the war and how he lost his mother, father, and all six of his siblings one by one.  Dr. Leon Wells of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had also testified at Nuremberg and had been a teenager when the war began, told the court how among his many experiences, he had been forced to serve in a special unit that was sent to destroy the evidence of the Nazi crimes by digging up the mass graves and incinerating the bodies and crushing the bones to dust.

Despite this desperate attempt by the Germans to hide their crimes, the evidence survived, and despite their efforts to destroy Leon Wells and Henny Durmashkin Gurko, both survived to live long lives and give birth to children and to tell their stories.  Today we honor their memories as we honor the memories of the millions who perished, and we are mindful today that even if ultimate justice in the context of the Holocaust is not possible, the pursuit of justice in all things is not only worthy but is a sacred responsibility.