Even though today promises to be the most glorious day of the year so far, there are shadows in the skies that will be called to mind, even on this wonderful spring morning. Because, as we heard on the news, today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and this evening Jews will observe Yom ha-Sho’ah, our own Holocaust Memorial Day.
It’s the anniversary of the Hebrew date when, in 1943, the Jews imprisoned in overcrowded and insanitary conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto discovered that it was going to be liquidated and that all those still alive were going to be transported to the death camp at Treblinka. 750 starving Jewish fighters armed with just a handful of pistols, 17 rifles, and Molotov cocktails faced more than 2,000 heavily armed and well-trained German troops supported by tanks and flamethrowers.
Needless to say it was a futile battle, though it did take the Nazis six weeks to bring the resistance to an end. Jews acknowledge the victims of the Holocaust annually on the anniversary of the uprising, but for many, there are questions about why there were not more stories of such armed resistance: how could so many people go so meekly to their deaths?
One answer is that the Nazis were so clever in the way that they gradually took away the Jews’ rights, then their possessions and finally their identity, their humanity that few of them had anything left with which to offer any resistance when their time came. Or perhaps the resistance of the majority took a different form: we can never know what words of comfort a father might have whispered to his son in desperate moments, what instinct enabled a mother to continue to feed her baby, despite the horrors taking place all around her, how a rabbi found it possible to teach the essential message of the Torah that we should ‘love our neighbour as we love ourselves’ in an environment so bereft of love.
All we can do is struggle to imagine the humanity that would have shone through even in the darkest of moments, try to honour the memory of those who suffered it and promise them and our own children that we will do our best to ensure that such terror will never again scar our world and that the prejudice and hatred that lead to it will swiftly be removed from our planet.