Remember their Names, Remember their Stories: A Reflection on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 27, 2023

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a UN-designated day to mark the day that Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explains: “While Jewish communities traditionally observe Yom HaShoah, which typically falls in April to mark the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, tomorrow’s commemoration is often an opportunity for non-Jews to engage with Holocaust remembrance and education.” 

As I reflect on the week that has passed, in preparation for Shabbat, I am thinking of the two mass shootings that occurred in California this week, coinciding with the celebration of the Lunar New Year by the Chinese-American community, and in one case, specifically targeting members of the Chinese-American community. News of mass shootings in the United States falls on ears that are increasingly numb to these events. What once would have been a rare and shocking headline now comes up in the news multiple times per week. Since January 1, there have been 40 mass shootings in the United States — more than one per day. There have been more shootings at this point in the year than in any year to date. When we become numb to news of attacks like this, because they are so frequent and impossible to comprehend in their constancy and scope, because we can feel hopeless and angry that guns are still easier to acquire in the US than cold medicine or so many other non-deadly items, we lose sight of the precious individuals whose lives were stolen. 

Even as hate-driven violent incidents become a daily occurrence in our place and time, and we struggle to find ways to respond, we continue to remember and to commit to honor the millions of lives shattered and stolen during the Holocaust. As that time period fades from view and nearly all Holocaust survivors are no longer alive, it is essential that we turn to individual stories, to remember and connect to individual lives. Today at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, will be inaugurating its “Book of Names,” a breathtaking installation containing the names of 4,800,000 victims of the Shoah. A new portrait exhibition highlights the lives of Holocaust survivors who lived long and full lives. There are many institutions seeking to preserve and illuminate the lives of the individual victims and survivors of the Shoah, including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – a Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in NYC, and also non-Jewish organizations such as Story Corps (www.storycorps.org), which features interviews such as this one.  

We must not let our minds and hearts grow numb to the ongoing stream of  hate-fueled violence in this country or anywhere else. In this week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened to the humanity of the Israelites. May we seek to soften our own hearts and open them to the stories of the precious individual souls, each one an entire universe, by learning their names and their stories.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman