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International Holocaust Remembrance Day rings differently this year

Elinor Ben David (left) hugs her daughter Liel Abissidan, 8, as they wait for a rally in support of Israel to start, at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach on Oct. 10, 2023, in Miami Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
Elinor Ben David (left) hugs her daughter Liel Abissidan, 8, as they wait for a rally in support of Israel to start, at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach on Oct. 10, 2023, in Miami Beach, Fla.

A small, sepia photograph of little boys standing in a synagogue, wearing prayer shawls and payos sits behind glass in the first gallery of the Holocaust Museum L.A.

"I feel very lucky to have a photo of my grandfather as part of our core exhibit," says museum C.E.O. Beth Kean as she points to a smiling boy in the front row on the left.

"It looks like he's around eight years old," she says.

Kean's grandfather survived and told stories about living in fear of death during the Holocaust. One lesson Kean heard over and over from her grandparents was that it could happen again.

So her life's work has been, in part, about proving them wrong. She says that work is especially salient on International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, following the October 7th massacre of more than 1,200 and kidnapping of more than 200 in Israel.

"This day is an important reminder," Kean says, "that the whole world needs to come together now more than ever to stand up and speak out against all forms of hate.

October 7th is a poignant reminder of life's fragility

The United Nations General Assembly voted to create International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005 and set the day as January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It's a separate day from Yom HaShoah, which is the Holocaust memorial day instituted in Israel and observed each spring since 1949, shortly after the modern state of Israel was established.

Holocaust remembrances ring differently for many this year, in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack.

"It is not the Holocaust," says Richard Hirschhaut of the American Jewish Committee, "but there are very clear connective threads that remind us of the Holocaust because of the experience of October 7th – a pogrom really."

Hirschhaut says those threads include Jews hiding in safe rooms, parents being separated from children, and victims being mutilated then killed.

"The sort of evil," he say, "that was perpetrated upon the Jewish people and millions of other innocents during the Holocaust is not a distant memory."

Which is why, Hirschhaut says, Holocaust Remembrance Day 2024 is even more poignant than usual.

Hope is the antidote to despair

The day serves as a stark caution for Rabbi Noah Farkas that the Holocaust rallying cry "never again" might have been spoken too soon.

"If I had to use a word to describe how we're feeling, it's 'disillusioned,'" says Farkas, who heads the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Disillusioned, he says, that the world has so quickly turned from the horrors of the Hamas attack to fights on campuses about free speech or at city council meetings over votes to stand with Israel.

"Starting on October 7th, we've come to the realization that the privilege that we thought we built at least here in America is entirely conditional," he says. "That privilege has been stripped out from underneath us."

He points to the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic instances and the failures of some friends and many political leaders to denounce the attack and fully support Israel and the Jewish people.

These current sorrows, Farkas says, echo the ancient sorrows of a biblical prophet.

"I think of Ezekiel's metaphor of the valley of dry bones," he says. "Ezekiel sees his temple destroyed, wanders into the desert bereft and comes upon a valley of death."

Farkas says the lesson from Ezekiel this Holocaust Remembrance Day is not giving in to despair.

"Resurrection of the dead literally or figuratively," he says, "begins with the resurrection of hope."

His hope is that the horrors of October 7th and its aftermath won't overtake Jews or Israel. While dealing with antisemitism unfortunately is part of what it means to be Jewish, says Farkas, it doesn't define Jews.

"We are defined by our love of life, by our joy and by incredible acts of loving kindness."

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Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.