Tucked away in a corner of Richmond is North America’s second oldest Holocaust memorial. In 1955, a group of survivors and immigrants who had proudly made Richmond their home pooled their meager resources to memorialize family members who had perished in the Holocaust—loved ones whose final resting place remained forever unknown and unmarked. The Emek Sholom (Valley of Peace) Holocaust Memorial Cemetery became a place to grieve, witness and remember.
It is this work of Holocaust education and memory which Emek Sholom has continued, most pointedly with an annual community-wide commemoration of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” and the turning point for the deadliest genocide in human history. This year’s commemoration, on Sunday, Nov. 10, marked the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht.
For some, 81 years is less than a single lifetime, and thankfully, some Holocaust survivors are still here. In the span of history, 81 years is nothing. A speck. Yesterday.
But 81 years can also be a lifetime removed, and seemingly longer, in our tendency to forget the past and distance ourselves from horrors that appear beyond comprehension.
The forces of historical amnesia are very real. Education lags. Our attention spans contract. It’s a natural inclination to try, however superficially, to sidestep life’s pain and discomfort. We are not inclined to gaze into the hell on Earth that was the Holocaust, because once we do, we face the miserable reality that humanity is so very fallible. That we are capable of both profound beauty and brutality, and that we all carry a measure of those capacities within us.
We look away, intentionally and subconsciously, and think, “then” and “them,” not here, not us. That 81 years is so very long ago. That we have moved on and need not look back.
And today, with Holocaust survivors still among us, 41 percent of all Americans and 66 percent of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was, and large percentages have no grasp of the Holocaust’s scale.
Also today, the American Jewish community is experiencing near-historic levels of anti-Semitism, a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults, and two mass shootings at U.S. synagogues within the past year. The virulent hatred is again in vogue, and is the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of extremism. That’s not even touching on the significantly bleaker prospects for Jews in many other parts of the world, or of the other, often mutually-reinforcing, hatreds that abound.
It’s not just that this noxious hatred will never die, but that it is cunning, and has a life of its own. So the real questions are how much oxygen we feed this fire, and how we contain it.
One essential response has to be Holocaust education and memory.
There is a moral imperative to remember the precious lives the Nazis tried their utmost to eliminate, and to make the world forget. We read their names, try to piece together and learn from their stories. This defiance against darkness is the sacred work of memory.
And history and pain can be profound teachers if we let them. They cut grooves through our consciousness, allowing empathy and understanding to flow. Avoidance does not bring insight or healing; integration and reckoning do.
Precisely because the Holocaust is of such unthinkable magnitude, it allows us to be humbled by the human capacity for both unimaginable cruelty and remarkable courage and resolve. It deepens our understanding of the world and of historical forces. It illuminates, because there is nothing new under the sun, and, as Justice Louis Brandeis observed, sunlight is “the best of disinfectants.”
Here in Richmond, Emek Sholom observes an annual commemoration of Kristallnacht because it marked the tipping point of sufficient “buy in” and complicity from the general German populace, without which the Holocaust could not have happened.
In commemorating, we remember we are not mere spectators; we are agents of history. We don’t need to wait for an inferno to douse the flames. Instead, we find our moral footing. We come together.
We are lucky enough to have survivors and others committed to doing this work. They are the memory keepers, the truth tellers, who confront the darkest horrors to teach us what grace resilience and integrity of the highest order look like. This is the antidote to historical amnesia.
Irina Manelis is a board member of the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She practices immigration law in Richmond.