Holocaust remembrance has struck a resonant chord with the American people. More than 15 million people, 80% of them non-Jews, have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum since its opening. Surveys show that, exposed to the enormity of death unleashed by the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust), visitors are emotionally moved to take greater responsibility for society and for potential victims of persecution. Paradoxically, Holocaust remembrance pulls people to the side of increased life, a kind of unexpected testimony to the decency of the human spirit.

Remembering the Six Million

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Logically, Holocaust memory should be a force for anger and revenge, for it is the result of a uniquely absolute, government-sponsored plan to kill all Jews. The murder of six million Jews; the systematic degradation, stripping of human rights, deprivation of elemental living needs before the actual genocide began; the gypsies, Poles, and gay people who also were swept into persecution and death in the Nazi mechanisms of the Shoah; the fact that all this was made possible by the relative apathy of the civilized world: These truths should enrage us and lead us to moral despair.

Jews should fault Christianity for creating a ring of hatred and stereotyping around Jewry, which the Nazis perversely exploited. And Christians might well be tempted into blaming secular, pagan Nazis, or even into faulting Jews for their own victimization. Similarly, Americans might avoid the museum as being too painful, too foreign in its evil world.

In fact, the opposite has occurred. Survivors, marked by memory, reaffirmed life and raised a generation of children disproportionately involved in human service professions. Goaded by Shoah remembrance, Jews have embarked on the greatest outburst of Jewish life ever, including the creation of the State of Israel. Diaspora and Israeli Jews worked together to rescue communities in danger and to recreate Jewish life. Rabbinic and Talmudic study has been reestablished on an unprecedented scale after being 80% decimated in the Holocaust. These are the signs of life, not of death.

Lashed by the horrors of the Holocaust and spurred by a sense of self-critical accountability, the leading Christian churches have purified classic teachings, removing demeaning stereotypes of Judaism and confronting hostile elements in their own sacred texts. They now affirm the dignity of Jews and the ongoing validity of Judaism.

Who can forget Pope John Paul II, frail yet immensely strong, on a visit of repentance and prayer at the Western Wall? Moved by the Shoah, he restored Christianity as a Gospel of Love. In parallel response, last year, a major group of Jewish teachers and rabbis issued the most comprehensive Jewish affirmation of Christianity's dignity and contribution as a religion in two millennia.

Visitors to the museum come out with an intensified urge to take more responsibility to assure a society of law and equality. Polish Americans and Jewish Americans are meeting to create a new era of friendship that goes beyond the cycle of rejection and anger of the past. Today, controversy is unfolding in the aftermath of documentation of a mass murder of Jews in 1941 by their Polish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne. There are enormous pressures and emotional conflicts within Poland over surrendering the image of Poles as solely victims of Nazism, rather than perpetuators of atrocities. Extremists urge scapegoating the murdered Jews. Yet, the Polish government's top leadership, sensitized by the Holocaust memory, acknowledges the failures of the past, freeing Poland to build a more humane future.

In 1979, the American government acknowledged its failure to fight for Jewish refugees in the Evian Conference of 1937. The U.S. then pledged to take in 20,500 boat people fleeing Cambodia and Vietnam and arranged to absorb a total of 250,000 refugees. During the 1990s, U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, however belated and limited, reflected the greater sensitivity of the American public to the past failure to stop genocide. We need more searing memory to empower further interventions by the Americans and the world's other powers. This past year, the museum's Committee on Conscience found Sudan to be a potentially genocidal situation. The force of remembrance operates to raise the norms of international accountability for murder and genocide.

Holocaust remembrance is not a feel-good experience; it is shattering. It summons up devastating historical failures and the need for unvarnished self-criticism. If we do not flinch from the pain, then remembering the Holocaust--evil and tragedy without relief--is turned by the alchemy of human spirit into a powerful force for life.

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