Shortly after the end of World War II, Holocaust survivors began using the term, “Never Again” as a rallying cry to bring world attention to the unprecedented horror they had witnessed, and against all odds, survived. The phrase continues to be used both particularly by the Jews to demand that the world never again be silent to attempts of genocide against the Jewish people, and universally to demand the end of such barbarism against any group. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author who came to be associated with the phrase, used it in the universal sense. “Never again becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow…never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has invoked Never Again, in our time, asking what the point of Never Again is if we stand by as Russian military continues the unrelenting vicious and indiscriminately violent attacks against Ukraine which seem to specifically target civilians, displacing millions of people including at least 1.5 million children.
This is a particularly painful number, as it is the same number of children killed by the Nazis during WWII. Anyone who has visited the Children’s memorial at Yad Vashem remembers the poignant visual representation, entering the dark and emotional space, in which one simple candle is reflected over a million times to represent the lives of each child murdered. Once seen, the memory of that image is permanently imbedded and remains in our hearts and minds forever.
On Sunday, May 1, remembering the children of the Holocaust will serve as the theme for our Community Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance) service. Our invited speaker, Joanna Sliwa, will share about the lives of children in the Krakow Ghetto, and connect it to what we are currently witnessing, so many years after the end of WWII. Remembering the children is also the theme of the Butterfly Project in which we in Nashville will join with others in learning about the horrors of the Holocaust as a way of combatting bigoty and discrimination not only in the past, but in also in our time. Through education of both the darkness and the beauty, the overall project seeks to create 1.5million ceramic butterflies, one for every Jewish child murdered by the Nazis.
The imperative to remember those lives remains, and it echoes forward to the devastation currently being inflicted in Europe. For those of us old enough to remember the organized Jewish world collective cry to Save Soviet Jewry, this is a painful reminder that the work we thought was finished remains incomplete. Particularly ironic, Jewish President Zelenskyy is a function of the work to try to remake and reinvigorate Jewish live in Ukraine over the past generation after the war. The physical representation of that work, schools, hospitals, and civic life, has been destroyed by Russian missiles, but the ongoing quest for freedom, democracy, and peace continues.
In his address to Congress, President Zelenskyy implored, "Today it is not enough to be the leader of the nation. Today, to be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. Peace in your country doesn’t depend anymore only on you and your people. It depends on those next to you – on those who are strong," he continued. "Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the lives of his citizens and citizens of the world. Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine – we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, to provide our lives in the name of the future," he said.
When addressing German lawmakers, Zelenskyy referred to the post-Holocaust phrase Never Again. "Politicians always say ‘Never Again,’ but we see that these words are worthless…Support freedom, support Ukraine, stop this war, help us to stop this war."
There is no quick or simple solution to end the Russian assault, or the humanitarian crisis that has already resulted in 4 million people, 10% of the population of Ukraine, being forced to flee for their lives. No one yet knows what will happen for many of these people. Will they ever be able to return to home? Will there even be homes for them to return to when Russia ends the madness?
So many of us, especially those with direct ties to Holocaust survivors and former Soviet Jewry, hoped that Europe had seen the last of this sort of barbarism. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have an obligation and a responsibility to do what we can in our time and place to remember the past and try to build a better future. The work towards a world free from violence, hatred, and destruction continues. Never Again means each of us must not only remember the past, but we also must use that memory to address the current humanitarian crisis happening right now.
For information about our Community Yom HaShoah service May 1, or the Butterfly Project, please contact Deborah Oleshansky, firstname.lastname@example.org