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Yom HaShoah: Miracles and Passivity During the Holocaust

Yad Veshem six torches lit at Yom Hashoah ceremony

Six torches are lit at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day service in Israel on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) to memorialize the six million Jewish People who perished. (2017 Yad Vashem, YouTube capture)

“For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.  My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.”  (Psalm 102:3–5)

Tonight at sundown, the somber national memorial day of Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) or Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) begins.  

Here in Israel, we set aside this day to remember the six million Jewish people—one third of the world’s Jewish population—murdered in the Holocaust. 

Tomorrow at 10 a.m., traffic will come to a stop all over Israel and Israelis will step out of their cars and stand silently in the streets to honor the 11 million people killed in the Holocaust, as well as the heroes who defied the Nazis, risking their own lives.
In Poland tomorrow, 12,000 people from around the world will participate in the 30th annual March of the Living, walking the 3.2 km (2 mile) distance from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
Israeli President Reuben Rivlin will lead the march along with Polish president Andrzej Duda.  The heads of all Israel’s security forces will follow — the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Police, the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

“After 70 years of the State of Israel, and the rebirth of the Jewish people’s independence in our homeland, we say clearly, ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ [The people of Israel lives].  This is a march of living in a place where there was only death. This is a bright light in the place where there was only darkness.”  Rivlin said in a supplement to The Jerusalem Report.

Young people raise the Israeli flag high during the March of the Living at Auschwitz.

Young people raise the Israeli flag high during the March of the Living at Auschwitz.

Passing the Torch of Holocaust Remembrance

The passing of the torch to younger people directs them to “see the struggle for Jews to live in safety as an ongoing necessity, rather than a part of history,” writes Israel National News.

It is an obligation for the Jewish community, as well as the world, to preserve the memory of this horror —  of humankind’s capacity to murderously destroy an entire race of people and almost succeed in doing it — of humankind turning a blind eye, passively standing by and just letting it happen.

This capacity and this passivity still infect humankind.

It is urgent that the torch of remembrance be passed.  A 2015 report by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors reveals that more than 80% of Israelis believe that the Holocaust is in danger of being forgotten.  (Arutz Sheva)

Family of Lili Jacob

On the day of Holocaust survivor Lilly Jacob’s release from the Dora concentration camp, she found in the camp’s deserted SS barracks an album of photographs of Jews arriving in Auschwitz, a concentration camp hundreds of miles away.  It was the same camp in which she had been torn from her family never to see them again.  In the album were photos of her family and friends.  The above photo is likely the last one taken of her aunt and cousins before they were murdered.

Will we allow that happen?  Are we seeing the last trace of “Never Forget”?  Will the Holocaust be forgotten in a handful of years?

It is possible—if we let it happen.

While many Holocaust survivors have been diligent to share their memories of the Holocaust, which have been met with kind curiosity, their numbers are rapidly dwindling.

The annual observance of this important commemoration in Israel on this 27th of Nisan might be the final Yom HaShoah for many survivors who saw and experienced the evil of the Nazis firsthand.

“He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so His own arm achieved salvation for him, and His own righteousness sustained him.”  (Isaiah 59:16)

Who will tell the stories of those who have suffered after they pass?  Who will remember?  Who among us will be determined to never forget, nor let it happen again?

Where Were They?

While we bring to mind the horrors of the Holocaust and the multitudes who were murdered — about six million Jews, as well as five million others, including three million Polish Christians — we might wrestle with the thought:
“Where was God?”
God has always been on His throne.  And while this is a popular question to ask, a more effective question for our day might be:
“Where were the Allies?”
In 2017, the United Nations released a report that reveals the US, UK, and Russia knew about the atrocities in the concentration camps already in 1942, two years earlier than previously thought.

In his speech on the eve of Yom HaShoah, 2017, Netanyahu said,

“Had the superpowers operated against the extermination camps in 1942 — and all that was required was a recurrent bombardment of those camps … they could have saved four million Jews and millions of additional human beings.
“The superpowers knew and did nothing about the situation.”

Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2017 Yom HaShoah ceremony at Yad Vashem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the 2017 Yom HaShoah Memorial Day event at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel. (Yad Vashem YouTube capture)

Scripture says,
“Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  (James 4:17; see also Romans 7:7–25; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Proverbs 3:27, 21:13; 1 John 3:16-18)
So, we could also ask,
“Where were the Christians?”
Several thousand Jewish people were saved by heroic acts of thousands of people, including Christians, but what were the two billion Christians in the world doing at this time?
How many were praying for a quick end to the war, for gas chambers to not work, for resistance groups to succeed in saving one more Jew?  How many offered their homes as hiding places?
As the Apostle Paul explained,

“We are ambassadors for Messiah, as though God were making His appeal through us.”   (2 Corinthians 5:20)

While our generation did not have the opportunity to intervene in the Holocaust, we have the chance today to make a difference in our families, workplaces, communities, nations, and Israel through prayer, sharing the Word of God so hearts can be changed, and action.

If God-fearing, Bible-centered Christians showed up for duty, imagine what would be accomplished for the sake of righteousness.

“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”  (Proverbs 29:2)

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem

Some of the names and faces memorialized in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names—the Jewish People’s memorial to each and every Jew who perished in the Holocaust.

Even though Israel is celebrating its 70th birthday this year, the sentiment is bittersweet.  Speaking to survivors last night at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial ceremony, Israeli president Reuven Rivlen said, 

You know better than anyone that the state of Israel is no compensation for the Holocaust.  The Holocaust of the Jewish People threatened in the most tangible way our ancient vision, our 2,000-year-old vision for the return to Zion in Jerusalem.  

“The final solution sought to bring an end to our national dream, and as such created the urgency to create an independent state of Israel.”

The Jewish People as a nation are now strong enough to defend themselves, but we know that hatred of them as a people and now a nation will never end.  We must help Israel remain strong against her enemies.

This year’s theme for Yom HaShoah is 70 Years of Remembering and Building: Holocaust Survivors and the State of Israel.  While the atrocities of the Holocaust are unfathomable, we can celebrate the stories of survival that did occur, where the weak thrived in spite of the wicked.  Let’s now look at three of them.

Holocaust Memorial by Mark di Suvero near the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

Holocaust Memorial by George Segal near the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.  (Photo by Alvaro Guzman)

Gena Turgel: Auschwitz Survivor, Author: I Light a Candle

Krakow-born Gena Turgel was 21 years old when she and her mother were told to strip naked and wait in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

“We walked into that room—stone floors, openings in the ceiling which I can still see in front of me—and we were trembling,” Turgel said in a video interview posted by The Israel Project.  “It was bitter cold—waiting, waiting.”

Turgel said she did not know to expect a shower of Zyklon B—the hydrogen cyanide that would suffocate multitudes of prisoners, pushing them to claw at the walls and one another, to try reach for clean air near the ceiling.

As they waited, Turgel saw “walking skeletons in every sense of the word—heaps of bodies lying everywhere; you could not distinguish whether they were men or women.”  After waiting, no poison fell.  (TIP)

“As we came outside, the women there said how wonderful it was to see us.  They screamed with happiness,” Turgel told the Associated Press in 2005, suggesting the gassing system must have been broken.  “They said, ‘Don’t you know?  You were in the gas chamber.’  I lost my voice.  I couldn’t produce any saliva.”

She was then put on a death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, about 5,800 km or 3,600 miles away.  
For many days and nights, she walked or sat in open trucks in the freezing winter; thousands died along the way.  

At the camp, she was placed in its hospital for several weeks, where she helped to care for the child diary author Anne Frank, who was dying of typhus in the bunk near hers.  Five hundred people a day died of disease alone throughout the facilities.
On April 15, 1945, the British liberated the camp.  
British officer Normal Turgel met Gena and threw an engagement party three days later.
In October, 1945, she married Normal, wearing a wedding dress made of British parachute silk.  The British Army Rabbi said that their love was a symbol of hope after so much death.  (Northwoodhmd)
“I have two daughters and a son, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  It’s a wonderful feeling to have family and to see it all—I was so thankful to God for that,” Turgel said.

Zyklon B was used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to murder a million people in gas chambers installed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and other extermination camps.

Zyklon B was used by the Nazis during the Holocaust to murder a million people in gas chambers installed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and other extermination camps.

“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  (Isaiah 40:1–2)

Yehuda Bacon: Auschwitz Survivor, Artist

Czechoslovakia-born Yehuda Bacon was 14 when he was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  After six months, his father was killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber and cremated—while his mother and sister were moved to an Austrian camp where they died.  (Learning about the Holocaust through Art)

Bacon became one of the few thousand prisoners remaining at Auschwitz at the time of the Russian advance against Germany.  That advance pushed back the Nazis and motivated them to destroy evidence of their genocidal crimes.

With Russia ready to soon liberate Auschwitz and its sub-camps, on January 18, 1945, the Nazis forced Bacon and 66,000 others on a 30-day-and-night death march to concentration camps deeper in the Reich.  About 15,000 Auschwitz prisoners died and were buried in mass graves along the brutal walk.  (The Holocaust Explained)

“My friends and I helped each other to drag ourselves along day and night on foot,” Bacon told the BBC.  His second death march happened two-and-a-half months later.  They arrived in the Austrian camp Gunskirchen where there were no toilets, food, water, or clothes.

Map of major extermination and concentration camps throughout Europe during the Holocaust.

Map of major extermination and concentration camps throughout Europe during the Holocaust.

Just before the United States 71st Infantry Division liberated the Gunskirchen camp, a Mauthausen-Gusen sub-camp, the Nazi guards poisoned the food in the storeroom and fled.

“I tried to take a huge piece of margarine.  Another prisoner, who was still strong, wanted to steal it from me.  I held it tight in my pocket, so he just took a razor, opened the pocket and took it away,” Bacon said.  “But he actually saved my life because not only had it been poisoned, but my body wasn’t used to so much food and I would have died if I had eaten it.”

Bacon added that in escaping the camp, he and his friend Wolfie followed a “crazy idea to go to Switzerland.”  The rest of the prisoners went to the nearest village, ate food the villagers shared, and died because their bodies were not used to the amount of food being eaten.

“In Israel they have one day of commemoration of the Holocaust every year where they have films and lectures and so on—a little too much, in my opinion,” Bacon told the BBC.  “But that is mainly for the other people who didn’t experience it.  For us, the ones who survived, we live with it every day.”

Holocaust survivors still carry the pain of the Shoah. In the above photo, survivors comfort one another as they visit Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the extermination camp.

Holocaust survivors still carry the pain of the Shoah. In the above photo, survivors comfort one another as they visit Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the extermination camp.

Angela Polgar: Auschwitz-born

Angela Polgar was not yet born when she survived the first two attempts on her life.

Dr. Carl Clauberg was a professor and researcher who received permission from experimental scientist Heinrich Himmler in 1942 to access multitudes of people for sterilization—among them, Angela’s mother, Vera Bein (nee Otvos).

Based at Auschwitz, Clauberg injected acid liquids into the uteruses of thousands of Jewish and Gypsy women, who were “sterilized by the injections, producing horrible pain, inflamed ovaries, bursting spasms in the stomach, and bleeding,” writes Jewish Virtual Library.  “The injections seriously damaged the ovaries of the victims, which were then removed and sent to Berlin.  Clauberg’s experiments killed some of his subjects, and others were put to death so that autopsies could be performed.”

Of the 700 women Clauberg sterilized, his attempt on Vera Bein failed.

“That was me in there [the womb],” Angela marveled.  “The needles went in, I went to the right side, then the left side.  Who knows what he gave her?”  (Aish)

Carl Clauberg, Nazi doctor of death

Carl Clauberg, Nazi doctor of death.

While Angela says she was so small, her mother was able to hide the pregnancy. Still, an unnamed “Jewish woman doctor” warned Vera that new mothers and their infants usually “disappeared” after birth.

Jewish-Hungarian gynecologist Gisella Perl writes in her 1948 I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz that women who gave birth in the camp “were beaten with clubs and whips, torn by dogs, dragged around by their hair and kicked in the stomach with heavy German boots.  Then, when they collapsed, they were thrown into the crematory—alive.”  (p. 80)

The doctor who spoke to Vera wanted to give her an abortion.  “She said I was too young to be gassed, and she wanted to save me,” Vera says on an audio recording taken by her granddaughter for a school project.

But Vera dreamed that night of her own mother, who told her, “Veruska, you are eight-months pregnant, and you don’t do this, because [the baby is] alive already and ready to leave.  Believe in God and HaShem will be with you.  Maybe a miracle will happen.  But don’t do it.”

She told the doctor no, and on December 21 gave birth on a top bunk to two-pound (1kg) Angela, with the help of an inmate supervisor.  With the help of other inmates, Angela stayed hidden until liberation came one month later.
“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant … and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.”  (Ezra 9:8)

Flowers are placed on the train tracks that brought prisoners to Auschwitz.

Flowers are placed on the train tracks that brought prisoners to Auschwitz.

As we mourn the millions (those who were and those who would have been) that were snuffed out in the Holocaust, we too treasure the miracle of every single person who survived.

While there are no comforting answers for why the world allowed the Holocaust to happen, let us who are still in the world diligently ensure that it does not happen again.