Well before my wife Rhonda and son Adam and I first visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 16 years ago, we were very familiar with many of the stories of the Shoah. The Nazi Holocaust was perpetrated against Jews along with atrocities committed against people throughout Europe whom the Nazis deemed undeserving to live because of who they were or what they believed. We found several exhibits at the Holocaust Museum to be more striking and poignant than the others, including the collection of shoes from the victims, a high column of photos of families in which all members had likely died, and the photos of Allied soldiers entering the camps as World War II neared its end. I don't think I have ever been to a place in the United States where such a feeling of solemnity and sadness came over me. And that feeling was only matched by my two visits to Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the holocaust in Jerusalem.
One of the first items we saw when we walked into the Holocaust Memorial Museum was the IBM Hollerith punch card machine used by the Nazis to catalog the names of people, especially Jews, whom they deported. That early piece of computer technology made it all too easy for the Third Reich to send many eventual victims to concentration and extermination camps. Our visit to the museum came only months after the chaos that was anticipated with coming of Y2K, the change from 1999 to 2000. Many of us thought the arrival of the new millenium would wipe out our computer hard drives due to an unanticipated glitch. A patch that was provided to users supposedly saved the whole world from technological ruin. Would that it would have been so simple for someone at one of IBM's European subsidiaries to have said "no" to the Third Reich, when they asked for the Hollerith technology.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to hear a number of well-known Holocaust survivors speak. One was Gerda Weissman Klein, the subject of the Oscar winning documentary, One Survivor Remembers." That film was based on her now classic book, "All But My Life." When Gerda Klein ascended the stage to receive the Academy Award in 1996 for that film, she would not leave when the music began to signal her to exit. Instead, she remained at the podium to deliver her all-important message: "I have been in a place for six incredible years, where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here? I am no better.’ In my mind’s eye I see those years and faces of those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home. On their behalf I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do that in a better way than when you return to your homes tonight to realize that each of you who knows the joy of freedom is a winner. On their behalf I wish to thank you with all my heart." I believe that what Gerda Klein did that night took courage. She knew that everyone present and everyone watching needed to hear what she had to say out of the depths of her experiences and her heart.
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel waited 15 years before he told his personal story of surviving the Holocaust in his book, "Night," published in 1960. I heard Wiesel speak several times in person over the years. His speech that most impressed me was the one he delivered on April 22, 1993 at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is part of the message he offered that day: "We believe in the absolute necessity to communicate a tale. We know we cannot, we never will, explain...It is not because I cannot explain that you won’t understand, it is because you won’t understand that I cannot explain. How can one understand that human beings could choose such inhumanity? How can one understand that in spite of everything there was goodness in those times, in individuals? There were good people even in occupied countries, and there was kindness and tenderness and love inside the camps among the victims. What have we learned? We have learned some lessons, minor lessons, perhaps, that we are all responsible, and indifference is a sin and a punishment. And we have learned that when people suffer we cannot remain indifferent."
The statements by Gerda Klein and Elie Wiesel both resonate with this year's theme for Holocaust Remembrance: "Learning from the Holocaust: Acts of Courage." It took courage to show kindness and tenderness in the camps and to be a good and decent person in occupied countries. It took courage to defy the unbridled evil that was all around in Nazi-controlled Europe. It took too many years for those stories to emerge, but they did come out in many forms. And it takes courage to share stories of heroism that people may not want to hear or that they know but prefer to forget. Children in schools are reading Gerda Klein's book, "All But My Life." They are reading NUMBER THE STARS, by Lois Lowry, which recounts the rescue of most of the Jews of Denmark by their fellow Danish citizens, who sent the Jews on boats to Sweden in a matter of a short few days. Perhaps the most widely read book in schools has been THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. It was well after the diary was published that we learned more extensively about the great work of those who cared for Anne Frank, her family and the others hiding in the Secret Annex. The strong business relationship and friendship between Otto Frank and Miep Gies led Miep to put her life in danger to keep her friends hidden. She was recognized for her bravery and her caring by Israel, Germany and the Netherlands in the 1990s.
During my years as a rabbi in Topeka, Kansas, I served on the Kansas State Holocaust Commission. We sponsored a screening in 1993 at a local movie theater of the newly-released Schindler's List to which state legislators and employees were invited. In making that film, just after finishing his masterpiece Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg took his own courageous step to present a lasting chronicle of one man's central and personal shining moment that stood out in his life. Oskar Schindler didn't intend to be a rescuer, but circumstances put him in a position to save the lives of 1000 Jews who would have died otherwise. One of the most meaningful scenes in the film depicted hundreds of descendants of the SCHINDLER JUDEN, the Jews protected by Schindler, walking together in Israel. Spielberg's desire to tell the stories of survivors did not end with his Oscar winning film. The year after its release, he founded the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation. This organization is still working to create a visual and oral history of the testimony of survivors that will be accessible for generations to come.
Sometimes, the preservation of stories of heroism from the Holocaust comes from what may seem to be unlikely sources. 17 years ago, three students at a high school in a small town in southeastern Kansas were choosing a theme for their group entry in the National History Day annual competition. In 1999, the national theme was "Turning Points in History." While sifting through materials to find a subject, Uniontown, Kansas high school student Liz Cambers discovered this paragraph from a 1994 article in US News and World Report that was entitled "The Other Schindlers":
“POLAND: IRENA SENDLER, SOCIAL WORKER
She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping.
When Hitler built the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to await liquidation, most Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler. A Warsaw social worker, Sendler wangled a permit to enter the teeming ghetto and check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the ghetto. Shocked by what she saw, Sendler joined Zegota, a tiny underground cell dedicated to helping Jews, and she took on the code name “Jolanta.” The deportations had already begun, and although it was impossible to save adults, Sendler began smuggling children out in an ambulance. “Can you guarantee they will live?” Sendler recalls the distraught parents asking. But she could only guarantee they would die if they stayed. “In my dreams,” she says, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
Sendler successfully smuggled almost 2,500 Jewish children to safety and gave them temporary new identities. To remember who was who, she wrote the real names on sheets of paper, burying them in jars in her garden. Finding Christians to hide them was not easy. "There weren’t many Poles who wanted to help Jews, [even] children.” But Sendler organized a network of families and convents ready to give sanctuary."
Liz Cambers read that description and wondered why Irena Sendler was not better known. This Polish Social Worker had obviously risked her life every time she took a child from the Warsaw Ghetto to safety in a new home. Liz and her project partners, Megan Stewart and Sabrina Coons, set out to discover what made Irena Sendler perform these many courageous acts. They were supported all along by their teacher, Norm Conard, who encouraged them to dig deep into this tale. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous gave the students more important information as they gradually developed their performance piece for History Day entitled "Life in a Jar." Just before the Kansas state competition, they received a crucial piece of information, some these girls didn't yet know. Irena Sendler was still alive and living in Warsaw. After Liz, Megan and Sabrina had presented "Life in a Jar" in and around Kansas and Missouri, a benefactor made it possible for the girls to visit Warsaw and to meet Irena Sendler in person. They developed a close relationship, like family, over the course of the coming years until Irena's death in 2008.
Irena Sendler's rescue of 2500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto was not well known because of politics. The Communist government of Postwar Poland saw the members of Zegota and other resistance groups as fascists and anti-Communists. They were not to be considered heroes even though they acted with such great courage. Their stories would not be told to the populace. It took three girls from Uniontown, Kansas and their supportive teacher to make the name of Irena Sendler known to the world. In the first letter she wrote to the "Life in a Jar" history project team, Irena Sendler explained what moved her to perform the acts of courage for which she became known. "“Despite the fact that in the world history there have been cases of oppression of Jews, there has not been a country whose agenda would be the extermination of the entire nation. For that reason your work has a great value for the world. These monstrous crimes/atrocities cannot be repeated! My parents taught me that if someone is drowning, one always needs to/should give a helping hand/rescue them. During the war the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews. For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.”
In 2003, Irena was recognized with the American Center of Polish Culture's award for valor and compassion. Irena's statement on receiving the award was read by the First Lady of Poland at the ceremony. She said at that time, " “This award is not for me only. I accept it on behalf of all those who helped me. I am the only one left. There were so many Jewish resistance fighters, not only the ones with guns and Molotov cocktails, but those who ran the House Committees and Youth Circles and kept hope and civility alive, especially for the young people. So many agreed to take in the children – at risk of death.
You award me because I am one of the few remaining to bear witness. But I tell you, I only did what any decent person would do in such horrible times. I do not consider myself a hero. The true heroes were the mothers and fathers who gave me their children. I only did what my heart commanded. A hero is someone doing extraordinary things. What I did was not extraordinary. It was a normal thing to do. I was just being decent.” A Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, "The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler," would likely not have been made were it not for the determination of Liz, Megan and Sabrina in reminding the world of Irena's amazing work of human concern and kindness.
There are many other stories of individuals whose acts of courage stand out from that dark time. There were diplomats from various countries who could not stand to see the Third Reich rob so many people of their dignity and their very lives. Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews and others while serving as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, Hungary in 1944. Dr. Feng Shan Ho, who served as Chinese Consul General in Vienna in 1938-1940, facilitated the safe departure of thousands of Jews from Europe to Shanghai even when his superiors told him to stop. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Kovno, Lithuania. He disobeyed his government's orders and issued visas that allowed thousands of Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe via Japan. After doing such amazing work, Wallenberg was arrested and likely ended up in the system of Soviet prisons. He is thought to have died there in 1947. Both Ho and Sugihara were forced to resign their posts by their home governments, but their persistence and bravery made a lasting impact on the lives they were able to save.
All of these examples of simply doing the right thing, being decent people, seeing all human beings as worthy of respect, have the power to continue to inspire us today. At Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, we recently received a letter from a 6th grade teacher at a school in Cairo, Illinois. The teacher, Mrs. Mary Beth Goff, noted that Cairo has a history of decline and racial tension. The school where she teaches is 98% African American and has a free lunch rate of 100%. Mrs. Goff is trying to get the students to think beyond themselves. They were inspired by the story of students at a school in Whitwell, Tennessee who collected 6 million paper clips to create a Holocaust memorial. Mrs. Goff's students decided to focus on the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. They are asking people from around the country and the world to send a penny for each child victim as part of this project, called Pennies As Promise. One of our Religious School classes at Temple responded to their request and wrote letters of encouragement. Here is a text of a letter from one of our Temple fifth graders: "Thank you for caring about the Holocaust and Jewish history. We will gladly send you as many pennies as you need. The Holocaust was a sad and miserable time - families lost all their belongings, memories, and courage. Some people lost all hope, but some kept fighting for freedom. I hope your project works."
There is always an even greater project at work - living in this world; building, making and preserving peace; assuring that people of all ages all over the world have all that they need; and turning conflict and hatred into cooperation, partnership and love. It takes courage to attempt to reach those goals, because too many people think only about their own needs. These words of the great Rabbi Hillel can direct us to do good and courageous work in our own time: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" The time is now to be courageous, to overcome fear and to restore respect and hope for the entire human family. May we succeed in our efforts because it is a need of our hearts - and so may our hearts guide us.