Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
1st place: Lauren Katz
School: East Chapel Hill High School
The war waged by Hitler and his accomplices was a war against the Jewish people, Jewish culture and thus, Jewish memory. If the twisted philosophy of the Nazi regime was to eradicate Jewish memory, then it is our duty to remember the Jewish lives that perished and to keep Jewish memory alive. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, explains in his preface his reasons for writing the latest edition of his memoir Night: “[I] believe that [I] have a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.” The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. It is imperative that we remember their stories in order to give meaning to their survival. As Wiesel writes, “[The survivor] has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory.” Wiesel has painstakingly endowed us, the next generation, with the knowledge of the moral depravity during the Holocaust as well as the importance of remembrance. Now it is up to us to apply this knowledge and to fight against future genocides.
As a Jewish teenager growing up in the United States, I believe that it is essential for our generation to remember not only the Holocaust, but also the debacle of our country’s lack of support for the Jewish community in its most crucial time of need. In his book, Abandonment of the Jews, David Wyman asserts that: “The United States was willing to attempt almost nothing to save the Jews” (5). Indeed, the United States government had been cognizant of the Holocaust since 1939, but took no action. Quite to the contrary, it set strict Jewish immigration quotas, accepting only 21,000 refugees from Europe. It has been estimated that 190,000 to 200,000 Jews would have been able to find refuge in the United States if these quotas had been lifted. In fact, the United States accepted far fewer Jews than many of the neutral European countries.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this misguided policy occurred in the spring of 1939. Maddeningly, the United States government refused to dock the S.S. St. Louis, which had sailed from Germany in May of 1939, carrying 936 Jewish refugees. The captain of the ship attempted to deliver his passengers to safety in the United States. President Roosevelt, however, refused to grant the passengers permission to disembark, and so the ship, waiting in the Caribbean Sea between Florida and Cuba, was forced to return to Europe; less than a third of the passengers survived the Holocaust. Four years later, in 1943, four hundred rabbis marched on Washington to draw attention to the Holocaust and its victims. Subsequently, Senator William Warren Barbour, a Republican from New Jersey, proposed legislation that would have allowed as many as 100,000 people to emigrate temporarily to the United States. Congress, however, failed to pass this legislation, leaving many with nowhere to go.
My great grandparents, Johanna and Fedor Horowitz, were fortunate enough to be among the few able to obtain entry into the United States. They received their visas through the support of my great uncle, Sieg Horowitz, who had immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. Departing from Germany in 1933, my great grandparents were on the last ship available before their visas expired. Tragically though, many of my Polish relatives from Podkamien, a small shtetl (village) in Galicia, perished in concentration camps. Prior to the war, the Jewish population of Podkamien was over 2,000, but it declined to only 822 afterwards. Six million lives were taken during the Holocaust. I will never be able to forgive or forget the cruelty of the Nazi regime or the apathy of the government leaders who prevented the United States from intervening in time to save the lives of members of my family.
I challenge my generation of Americans to heed the lessons of the past. Never before have there been so many ways and opportunities to engage with this painful history – museums, memorials, survivor memoirs and films abound. The National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., for example, has had more than thirty million visitors since it opened in April, 1993. Among its powerful exhibits is a collection of adult and children shoes from Majdanek, Poland, each pair representing a life lost. There is no excuse for us to be ignorant of the atrocities that occurred. Above all, we have dedicated a day, Yom HaShoah, for remembering the Holocaust, the individuals who risked their lives to save the Jewish people, and the Jewish memory.
The survivors of the Holocaust who witnessed and lived through unspeakable horrors and who painfully shared their stories with us have, in a way, passed down to us a torch. This is a torch of memories, of hurt, of knowledge, and of anger. In order to prevent future genocides, it is our duty to take this torch, to keep it burning, and to light the way for our descendants. To fail to do so would not only be a disservice to Elie Wiesel and other survivors, but also to ourselves. As Wiesel charges at the end of his preface, “To forget would not only be dangerous, but offensive.” Let us then take the remembrance day, Yom HaShoah, to force ourselves into a painful re-engagement with the past – to confront the atrocities, to remember the potential for inhumanity within humankind, to allow the stories of survivors to marinate in our hearts, and to let the hurt and anger re-energize us to fight against like crimes in the future. As visitors to the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. depart, they are prompted to write a pledge on a note card articulating one way that they will remember the past in order to prevent it from repeating itself. I challenge my generation of Americans to do as visitors of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum. I challenge us to use Yom HaShoah as a day dedicated to remembrance and to action. I challenge us to physically write a pledge on that day to maintain vigilance and to fight against future genocide. I challenge us to not just passively take the torch, but rather to reach for it ourselves and to lift it up and, with humility, dignity and courage, carry it forward for those who will follow us.