There’s a story in my family, one I have known for a few years now, but one that I have never really come to terms with. The story concerns my grandfather, who was a professor of political science at a school called Babson. His name was Edward Handler, although that was not his legal name. See, when he was born, his parents wanted to name him Edward, but the doctor disagreed. In his mind, Edward was not a fitting name for a Jewish boy. So instead the doctor wrote “Israel” on the birth certificate, and my great-grandparents, being immigrants with limited English skills, didn’t argue.
Anyway, the story begins in the fall of 1978. At the time, Babson’s soccer team had a fierce rivalry with Brandeis, a school well known for its Jewish connection. Prior to a game against their rivals, a number of grotesque incidents occurred. Some players on the team created a sign that said “KTJ” (standing for “Kill the Jews”), worse swastikas, and hung a sign saying “Happy Holocaust.” My grandfather was rightfully angry, and he worked to ensure that the players responsible understood why their actions had caused so much pain, giving them a lecture about the Holocaust. It would be nearly 35 years before Babson issued an apology for the incident, although even the apology was not without controversy. Many of the former players felt that nothing that bad had happened and that no apology was necessary.
This is not, unfortunately, the end of the story. My grandfather lived on the Babson campus, in a house that still stands today. The following spring, just a few weeks before my father’s Bar Mitzvah, my grandmother went outside in the morning to warm up the car. She started screaming, and my dad ran outside to see what was wrong. Upon his arrival, he saw what had caused her so much distress. Their home and car has been spray painted with swastikas. “Kill the Jews” and “Fuck the Jews” were written as well. The incident was reported the police, but the perpetrators were never apprehended.
I always think of this story when I think of anti-Semitism. I’ve been lucky enough that anti-Semitism has never really been “real” to me; my personal experiences with it have mainly been through internet trolls. It’s frankly quite frightening to think that I am just one generation removed from such open hatred. It’s equally frightening to know how physically close that hatred is – I grew up just five minutes away from Babson, and regularly drive past that house. But I must admit I’ve never really been able to understand just how scary that must have been for my father, his siblings, and my grandparents. I am lucky enough to have nothing to compare it to. And maybe that’s why even now, writing this, I know I can’t ever fully comprehend it.
This past Monday was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. For one day of the year, the international community pauses to remember a unique wrong done to the Jewish people, just one in a long series of injustices my people have faced. Yom HaShoah represents the rare occasion to grapple with the enormity of the Holocaust, something that, regrettably, we rarely do.
There’s another story that comes to my mind today. This occurred a few years ago, on a family visit to Florence, Italy, during our visit to the Florence synagogue. After going through some strict security – more intense than anything else in the city, even the museums that house countless pieces of priceless artwork – I entered the synagogue with my family. It was a wonderful experience in a beautiful building, yet I couldn’t help but notice how sad my dad seemed. After we left, I asked him about it. I don’t remember the exact words he said, but their essence has always stuck with me. He said that going to these old European synagogues reminded him that, in a sense, Hitler had won. He had set out to wipe European Jewry from the map, and by and large he had done so. Florence had once been home to thriving Jewish community, like so many other cities across Europe. And now, those places between them were home to maybe a few thousand Jews. Hitler wanted to make a museum of an extinct race, and, as depressing as it is to think, that is by and large what European Synagogues are: museums dedicated to a people that no longer call that place home.
I think about this story because it drives home to me the enormity of the Holocaust. Six million is, obviously, a large number. People far more eloquent than I have written about grappling with that number. It seems impossible; it’s just too big. I can try for all my life and I doubt that I will ever truly comprehend it. The best that I can do is try.
It seems that most people have a hard time grasping the true horror of the Holocaust. People throw it around as a comparison for current events. Donald Trump becomes Hitler, the plight of the Palestinians becomes equivalent to the Holocaust, and we lose sight of the big picture. Donald Trump is a bad man, but he did not kill 6 million people out of pure hate. The Palestinian situation is an awful one, but it does not rise to the level of the Holocaust. Making these comparisons is a way to score cheap points. We know that the Holocaust was bad, so if something is like the Holocaust it too must be bad. But these comparisons obscure the true nature of just how bad the Holocaust was, and by making them we disrespect the victims.
I do not mean to imply that the Holocaust can never be compared to current events. On the contrary, it is often vital that we do so. “Never forget” does not mean that we simply do not let the horrible facts of the Holocaust fade from our collective memory; it means that we must work vigorously to ensure that there is never another event like the Holocaust. The Holocaust can be a powerful lesson for salient political issues today. We ought to take note of how important it has been to confront the Holocaust, and wonder why we have not done the same for the Armenian genocide. We ought to recall the rejection of Jewish refugees when we consider what ought to be done about the current refugee crisis. And we must always remember that the Holocaust was worsened by the international community turning a blind eye, and that we must strive to avoid past mistakes.
But Holocaust Remembrance Day is not the proper time for such comparisons. All of these comparisons are useful in understanding our modern problems, but they do not help us understand the Holocaust. All they do is sully the day. No one would even think of using Martin Luther King Jr. Day to make a point about other political issues; MLK day is supposed to be devoted to remembering and understanding the numerous current and historical injustices done to the African-American community. Yet many of the same ostensibly progressive people who would rightfully take umbrage at attempts to co-opt MLK Day or other causes have no problem doing the same on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that Holocaust Remembrance Day should be exactly that: a day of remembrance. One day we can set aside to try to understand what it means for 6 million people to have been wiped off the face of the earth, to have suffered through such unspeakable horror. Every other day of the year we can use the Holocaust to help understand modern situations. But it seems that the least we Jews can ask for is that for one day, we put all that aside and simply remember.