Holocaust Remembrance Day: The Kindness of Strangers

Holocaust Remembrance Day & the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Seventy-five years is a long time. For young people in school today, its more than three generations in the past.  That makes learning about the systematic murder of millions of Jewish citizens, including 1.3 million children, in Europe during 1938-45, a mighty task. 

Add to this that many young Australians have never met a Jewish person, but they probably have seen a Swastika. Just this week a Nazi flag flew proudly above a home in the Victorian town of Beulah, shocking the residents and prompting a call for the ban of this vile symbol of the worst genocide in history.

There have been other genocides, but none was prosecuted with such totality, efficiency and on such a scale, fulfilling Hitler’s pledge to rid all of Europe and he hoped the world of Jews.  That this could be undertaken and accomplished to the extent that it was, left not just the Germans culpable but also large populations of Europe who acted with complicity or just passively allowed it to happen. 

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

 Silence is no longer an option.  The United Nations was founded as a response to the Holocaust, and it instituted the United Nations Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, the date of the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz.

The worst of the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz saw approximately 1.3 million inmates and killed more than 1.1 million people, just under a million of them were Jews.  Auschwitz has become a symbol of the total terror that claimed almost 6 million Jewish lives.  

Today, there are few Auschwitz survivors remaining who can speak about their experiences but I recently met a man and a woman who have been shining lights to the Jewish community in Sydney.  Leipzig born, Eddie Jaku, who is soon to celebrate his centenary, is a lively, articulate, and inspiring speaker to hundreds of people, mostly school children. 

Eddie’s message is fundamental:  put away hate. Never use the term in speech, and learn to cultivate gratitude for life instead; see people as human beings not as this or that religion; and above all see them as friends.   The students who come to hear Eddie, who speaks at the Sydney Jewish Museum twice a week, arrive as audience members and leave as his friends.

Olga Horak, originally from Bratislava, is in her 90’s and was also an inmate of Auschwitz.  Among all the horrific experiences she endured in concentration camps and on death marches, losing her mother right after liberation was the most painful moment in her life, and one which she has never got over. 

Yet, at her lowest point, alone in the world and recovering in a hospital in Czechoslovakia, it was a stranger in the next bed who took Olga home and nursed her back to health.  She owes her survival to this woman.

The kindness of strangers, one human being to another, was the most universal of moral lessons in a world that had lost its meaning.  It is the most useful practice in daily life and it has the power to rescue people from despair and even death.  It also is life-giving to the one who dispenses kindness as much as to the one who receives it.

In the recent weeks and days in Australia, it goes without saying that it is the kindness of strangers to those who have suffered in the disastrous bushfires, where homes were razed, towns destroyed and lives were lost, that has restored faith in humanity and hope for the future.

The Jewish sages taught:  “loving-kindness [hessed] is greater than charity [tzedakah] in three ways. Charity is done with one’s money, while loving-kindness may be done with one’s money or with one’s person. Charity is done only to the poor, while loving-kindness may be given both to the poor and to the rich. Charity is given only to the living, while loving-kindness may be shown to the living and the dead. [B.T. Sukkah 49b]

As human beings and as Australians we can’t do without the kindness of strangers, now more than ever.