Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Network
preserving the past to protect the future ...
Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

March of the Living:
Jews, Write It Down

Dr. David Silberklang
Editor-in-Chief, Yad Vashem Studies

""Yidn, schreibt!" ["Jews, write it down!"] is what historian Simon Dubnow reportedly called out to the remaining Jews in Riga as he was taken to be killed on Dec. 8, 1941.

On the same day that Dubnow was shot, Nazi Germany opened the Chelmno extermination camp for operation, the first of the camps built especially to murder the Jewish people.

More than four years later, on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, the last such camp still functioning. They found 7,000 survivors from among the more than 1,000,000 people murdered there. Several days earlier, the camp's Nazi staff had marched out more than 50,000 inmates in order to prevent them from falling into Allied hands. Most of these were also murdered. More than 90% of all these victims, both the murdered and the survivors, were Jews. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest extermination center created by the Nazis. It has become the symbol of the Holocaust and of willful radical evil in our time.

These three events frame much of the Holocaust. When Dubnow called on the Jews to write it all down, he was calling on them to leave a record of what happened. That record was to be studied by future generations, so that what happened would be known, the Jews remembered, and perhaps something learned.

When in October 2005 the UN adopted January 27 as the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, it recognized the enduring impact of the Holocaust on our world. The wounds are still open, the memories are still raw, and the effects of the Holocaust have not dimmed. Its shadow looms ever large as the world continues to struggle to navigate out of the terrible human potential that the Holocaust bared, towards a future where humanity has learned how to prevent such things from recurring. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan has said, the UN was built largely on the ashes of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust shook the very foundations of modern civilization, calling into question our understanding of humanity itself. Modern nations were found wanting at best, murdering at worst. For the first time in modern history, one nation set out to murder an entire nation, without leaving behind a single exception. There was to be no conversion, no assimilation, no pity on the elderly, and no mercy for the children. The Jews represented for the Nazis and their collaborators all that they held to be wrong in this world, such as the concept of human equality, based on the belief that all human beings are created in God's image.

Murdering all the Jews meant murdering modern civilization, in order to replace with a Nazi racist, antisemitic, totalitarian, and brutal vision of the world. And parallel to the millions of human beings who were to disappear off the face of the Earth simply because they had a Jewish background, many other people who were undesirable in the Nazis' eyes were to be persecuted, enslaved, or murdered.

The awakening of the UN to Holocaust commemoration is an important step in heightening awareness of the Holocaust and of its devastating impact on the world. More than sixty years since the Holocaust, we still wonder what the world has learned. This year we can say perhaps that the world has learned to remember, and in remembrance of the particular event -- the murder of the Jews -- we can address the universal implications -- the challenge posed to modern civilization. Only in remembering and learning the past can we hope to secure the future.

The next step is securing remembrance and infusing it with content. What do we remember? What do we want collectively to prevent? For the State of Israel, where remembrance of the Holocaust is marked annually on the 27th of Nissan, Yom Hashoah, January 27 should become an annual day of study of a particular subject relating to the Holocaust. Dubnow's call to Jews then to write it all down was also a call for us to study the event, and hopefully to learn to prevent its recurrence. January 27 should be devoted annually to a theme that will be studied in schools and addressed in public forums. In 2006, the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust should address a basic issue -- clarifying the definition of the Holocaust in a comparative analysis with genocide and related events in modern history. In this way, we will examine just what we are remembering, and what it is that we should strive to prevent.