Last Sunday afternoon, in an 18th-century English-built church in Cutchogue, the events that occurred in eastern Europe in the mid-20th century were on full display. History came to the church in the form of a 92-year-old, Berlin-born Jewish man named Werner Reich.
Mr. Reich told a rapt audience what he and his family experienced after a political arrangement placed Adolf Hitler in the German chancellor’s seat in January 1933. As Mr. Reich told his horrific story, in words and in pictures, he recalled that the war against the German Jews — who amounted to barely 1% of the total population — began soon after. That war resulted in industrialized mass extermination at death camps in Poland, where Mr. Reich, still in his teens, was held and somehow managed to survive.
Six million Jews were murdered between 1941 and the war’s end in May 1945. Mr. Reich was a prisoner at Auschwitz during the summer of 1944, when 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in a matter of weeks. The German were nothing if not highly efficient managers of the killing assembly line.
The mantra “never again” has been applied to the lessons of the Holocaust, meaning that nothing like what happened to the Jews in Germany and other countries overrun by the Nazis should ever be allowed to recur. Sadly, while not on the same scale, it has happened again, and again.
Just one example: 500,000 Tutsis were hacked to death in Rwanda over a few months in 1994 by followers of the Hutu-led government. And we know that ethnic cleansing on a mass scale has occurred in various other parts of the world since 1945, along with situations in which children have been separated from their parents and families. As slogans go, “never again” has not worked out.
Sunday’s observation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which brought Mr. Reich to Cutchogue, was not without small moments of controversy, which serve to further illustrate how history is remembered and how it can be shaped and reshaped.
In Israel last week, journalist Gideon Levy wrote a column in the newspaper Haaretz that sharply criticized the hundreds of international figures who traveled to Israel for Remembrance Day for not speaking out about Israel’s decades long treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population.
He wrote that it was hypocritical for the world leaders who attended to honor the victims of the Holocaust not to visit what he called the ghetto for Palestinians in Gaza while they were there. He was not drawing moral equivalency; he was saying don’t look away from the current plight of people as you remember the horrors of the past.
To many, comments like Mr. Levy’s are nothing more than modern day anti-Semitism. But how we remember the past is as important as what we choose to remember. We chose to honor the elderly survivors of the Holocaust and to urge that their experiences be told in as many venues as possible, while reserving our right to apply “never again” to current events.