Jewish Journal

No more candles

By Joel Geiderman

Posted on Jun. 26, 2008 at 11:31 am

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on Yom HaShoah, May 1, in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol:

Senators, congressmen, Chief of Staff [Joshua] Bolten, members of the diplomatic corps and fellow citizens: I stand before you this morning and humbly thank you on behalf of my family, who perished in the Holocaus,t for attending this Days of Remembrance ceremony in our nation's capitol. There are no words to express my gratitude to you for being here.

One theme of today's ceremony is that of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. I applaud this because it belies the negative image I ashamedly believed as a youngster that Jews went to the slaughter like sheep because they were too afraid, timid, or weak to fight back. The truth is, faced with incremental decisions as to whether to fight back or be killed on the spot, and unaware of any precedent whereby people were exterminated solely on the basis of their religion or "race," -- a situation that was only subsequently termed "genocide" -- Jews often did not resist. Ultimately they were placed in ghettos, on transports and in concentration camps, usually not understood ahead of time as death camps, and were destroyed. There should be not one ounce of shame associated with these actions. At every step, they did what they thought was best to save their families and themselves. Who among us would do differently?

The pathetic irony is that we have to spend our time defending the honor of the victims. During the run-up to World War II, liberal democracies stood by as impotent, unwitting accomplices, unable to stand up to the Nazi regime, whose intentions were made well known to the world. As a result of universal silence and appeasement, Germany invaded Poland, overran Europe and North Africa and carried out its stated intention to kill millions of people.

In these ceremonies, we remember the valiant uprisings in the ghettos of Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystock, Kovno and others. We remember the partisan fighters in the forests and the underground movements. We remember the daring revolts in the death camps at Treblinka and Sobibor and the demolition of crematorium number four at Auschwitz-Birkenau with smuggled explosives.

In 1943, a precious few would try to help the Jews of Europe -- the Danes, the Bulgarians and a tiny village in France called Le Chambon. While noble, these efforts were too little, too late. Largely, the world stood by and watched innocent people perish, similar to responses we have witnessed in similar situations since.

Recently, at Yad Vashem, in Israel, President Bush challenged the decision of the Allies not to bomb the tracks of Auschwitz, a decision that undoubtedly cost the lives of thousands of human beings, including my grandparents and two young uncles. I applaud President Bush, and I recently thanked him personally for his comments. He has been a great friend of our museum and a great champion of Holocaust remembrance.

Today, another enemy of democracy has made well known its intentions to kill millions of people. Whether it be 6 million in Israel, or millions in Spain, London, Germany, the Persian Gulf, New York or elsewhere, the declared intentions are unambiguous. At least one whole nation has been targeted for destruction with the threat to "wipe it off the map." History should have taught us that democracies that let such pledges stand do so at their own peril.

So in the name of the victims, I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to assure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it. Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics cannot be tolerated. By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am declaring my resistance to this notion. It would be far too easy to light 12 candles for 12 million murdered rather than six candles for 6 million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.

Joel Geiderman is an emergency medicine physician in Los Angeles and the vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington, D.C.

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