CNEWA Connections: Remembering the Holocaust

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) is observed this year from the evening of 17 April to the evening of 18 April. Although the United Nations observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, Jews, depending on the Sabbath, commemorate the day on the 27th of the Jewish month of Nisan (April/May), some two weeks after the beginning of Passover. Yom HaShoah 2023 also commemorates the 80th anniversary of the uprising of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw against the Nazi occupiers.

Although the Holocaust has come to refer uniquely to the Nazi extermination of six million Jews between 1941 and 1945, it is not without much broader, global import. The Holocaust was not without roots, nor did it simply appear full blown on the stage of history.

The Holocaust was the result of centuries of contempt, oppression and alienation. While the end result of the demonic efficiency of the Holocaust might have been unexpected, the centuries-long trajectory leading to it was not.

For centuries in Europe, Jews had become increasingly the quintessential outsiders. Jews were not part of the overwhelmingly Christian “culture.” Jews often had to wear particular clothing or symbols which identified them as “outsiders.” They were forbidden to engage in many trades, unable to own land and often forced to live in ghettos, separate from the dominant culture. The step from being labeled the “outsider” to being labeled “subhuman” is not a big one and was efficiently accomplished by Nazi propaganda.

While Yom HaShoah is a Jewish observance, it speaks to the entire world in a way that other Jewish observances like Pesach (Passover), Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) do not. While acknowledging a uniqueness to the Holocaust, we cannot overlook that it was not the first nor the last genocide in the 20th century. Millions of people were killed in the genocide of Armenians after World War I. From 1975 to 1979, Pot Pol and the Khmer Rouge killed between 1.5 and 2 million people in Cambodia. There are indications more recently that Russia is engaged in genocidal tactics against Ukrainians.

Even as we observe Yom HaShoah 2023, we are alarmed by the increase in anti-Semitism in the industrialized world and in our own country, as well as the subjugation of minorities of all sorts who are being pushed to the periphery around the globe.

Yom HaShoah shows that the trajectory of contempt is frighteningly clear. A dominant group, or a group that wishes to become dominant, begins by pushing another group to the periphery of society until the latter becomes an outsider and ultimately a “threatening outsider.” Being relegated to the periphery of society is a short step from being relegated to the periphery of humanity. Yom HaShoah is a reminder to the entire world of the danger of dehumanizing “the outsider.” Pope Francis is continually calling on us to be aware of “those on the peripheries.” In its motto, referring to one God, world and human family, CNEWA commits to reach out to the marginalized, to welcome the outsider and to defend the rights of all.

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