Holocaust remembrance

  • Published
  • By Capt. David Clementi
  • 75th Fighter Squadron
Imagine walking into a circular room the size of a large hotel suite. You step out onto a suspended platform right in the middle, where you can look out over the edge.

The walls are black and filled with bookshelves made to fit three-inch, three-ring binders. Each binder has hundreds of handwritten biographies, chronicling the stories of people just like you and me; the only exception is that these people were victims of the Holocaust.

More than 2 million pages are kept in binders on those shelves in the "Hall of Names" at the Yad Vashem (Holocaust remembrance) Museum in Jerusalem.

Each page was written by someone who knew a victim, in an effort to catalog their story before they are forgotten. What is more eerie and disturbing are the spaces left on the bookshelves, the spaces left for the 4 million people whose story has not been told.

Looking back to my junior year in college when I stood on that platform overlooking the "Hall of Names," I reflect on what it means to me now, to remember what started happening almost 75 years ago that led to so much atrocity, so much loss and heartache, and a gash that will forever scar the world.

As we approach Yom Hashoah, literally meaning the day of catastrophe, which is observed on April 19 or the 27th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar.

It is imperative to understand why a Holocaust remembrance day is so important, especially to those of us serving in the U.S. military.

We serve in the armed forces of a country that is post-segregation, a country where women have the right to vote and are on equal footing in the work place, and a country that elected its first African-American president.

Why are the atrocities of 1940s Germany so important to our history and present day lives?

I believe it is because we are at the forefront of protecting our nation's freedom, and have an obligation to protect its citizens from atrocities that might seem so farfetched as to not believe they could happen. Yom Hashoah reminds us that such horrific acts are possible, and if it happened in Germany nearly 75 years ago, it could happen anywhere tomorrow.

The Holocaust wasn't proposed and carried out by a radical group of fundamentalists who lived far from population centers in primitive homes. It was a methodical operation executed by a country's government and military arm.

They lived in a nation that was as populous as any in the world and was at the forefront of science and technology. However, Germany at the end of 1939 was suffering economically after its defeat in World War I and needed someone to blame.

So began the systematic expulsion, segregation, incarceration and finally extermination of over 6 million people. All the while, neighboring countries sat in defiant disbelief and were distracted by the bigger problem of Germany's occupation of Western Europe. In fact, Germany put the predominance of the concentration camps in Poland, yet nations still sat idly by in denial.

I hope that you understand the circumstances that led to the Holocaust are not just buried in the past. They are recurring social issues that will forever be present.

Our economy is struggling, we have been at war for more than 10 years, and we are busy trying to survive, keep food on the table and gas in the car. We are preoccupied, stressed from working too much and overly focused on ourselves. As members of the U.S. military we must remain ever vigilant and not allow these distractions to prevent us from seeing and stopping horrific atrocities.

I leave you with this final thought, a parable from the times of the Holocaust attributed to Martin Niemoller, a priest who spoke of the inactivity of German intellectuals and elites while the Nazis rose to power.

"First they came for the communists and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

If no one speaks up for humanity, for the weakest and poorest amongst us, or even for those whom we despise the most, then history is bound to repeat itself.