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Yom HaShoah Memorial Candle

No man is an island, entire onto itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

I have long felt John Donne’s eloquent statement to be a somber reminder of what should be a basic tenet of human existence. How different might our world have been had such ideals dominated Europe from 1939 – 1945. Instead, our human family was indeed diminished.

Six million Jews and millions of others were systematically annihilated in the penultimate pogrom we have come to know as THE HOLOCAUST: Communists, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Poles, Resistance fighters, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war of many nations, and countless others.

Those  who perished were lost to the world in body, but not spirit, for as long as we remember them, they live on.  And so we remember. And in remembering we honor the innocent, and reaffirm our condemnation of the guilty. We remember in the hope that in so doing such crimes will not be repeated.

We will remember them in services around the world today during YOM HASHOAH, “The Day of Remembrance.”  We will be moved by speakers, some who survived the conflagration. We will voice heartfelt prayers and light memorial candles. We will reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man as perpetuated by the Nazi killing machine in Europe. We will realize the immensity of the crime — six million Jews. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish pre-WWII population, and half the world’s pre WWII Jewish population.

In 1989 the Holocaust became irrevocably real to me as I explored the killing grounds of Auschwitz while traveling on behalf of Spertus Museum of Judaica.  I was not obligated to visit, but felt a that bearing witness to the Holocaust was a responsibility – a moral imperative. Walking past displays of “physical evidence” I kept reminding myself that “but for the Grace of God….” It was a sobering and life-changing experience.

Years later, immersed in writing, my fingers froze as they were poised above my computer’s keyboard. I was uncertain as to how to tackle the chapter where my fictionalized character (Holocaust Survivor Max Golanski) visited the death camp where he had been imprisoned.  I simply couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Knowing the impact visiting Auschwitz had upon ME, I was stymied as to how to enter the skin of one who had actually lived that horrific truth, then returned to renew his tie to the time, place and events as a living witness.

As happens sometimes among those of us who are either blessed (or condemned) to write, I finally removed myself from the process and let Max tell his story. I typed at a rapid clip, through closed eyes as my heart drummed madly against the walls of my chest.  The chapter quickly evolved into a surreal ballet. I was there only to serve as scribe.

To honor the memories of the innocents murdered in the Holocaust, I offer the following selection from that chapter of  GOLANSKI’S TREASURES.  May the memories of the Martyrs be a blessing, and may we live to see a day where “Never Again” is no longer a prayer, but a reality.

(NOTE:  Quoted text is copyright protected by Sue Ross, 2012 and remains the exclusive property of the author.  Use of this material without permission is prohibited.)

Max entered a darkened room made smaller by the omnipresence of a large urn.  Its circumference was the size of a mature tree’s trunk, yet stood only a few feet tall.  The focal point of the room, the simple and unadorned urn beckoned Max to approach.

Slowly walking forward he stopped abruptly, as if confronted by a hidden barrier.  Noticing a sign in Polish, he drew closer to read the faded words, then pulled back abruptly, his breath wrenched from his chest.  Suspended in time, Max felt the presence of invisible sentries hovering nearby.  Stepping back a few paces his heart slowly absorbed the simple words inscribed.  The simple clay urn cradled precious ashes collected from the ovens.  Ashes taken from the nameless, faceless, countless, unknown souls who had perished in the crematoria.

Reaching a trembling hand towards the vessel, Max felt a bolt of electricity course through his body as his hand made contact.  Was he touching the cheek of his beloved wife?  The shoulder of his childhood friend?  Had the ashes of a young Russian soldier co-mingled with an old Gypsy woman with flashing gold-earrings, or a sympathetic Catholic priest who dared to object?  Was that the laughter of a small girl?  The sobbing of an old woman?  Were those the persistent and distinctly melodious strains of a violin crying with her?

As he withdrew his hand, Max’s breath swooped back into his lungs leaving him gasping and light-headed.  Closing his eyes he sighed deeply.  A long, thin puff of air escaped his lips.  Max was reminded that the Third Reich’s perverted quest for world domination was built upon subjugating and exterminating all non-Aryans.  Its malignant vision left no one people holding a monopoly on suffering.  Death had become the great equalizer.