Yama Memorial, Minsk, October 21
Today is one of the saddest days for the Jewish people, and yet it is also a very remarkable day. This is the day we celebrate one of the happiest Jewish holidays – Simchat Torah, when a new cycle of Torah readings begins.
I do not think it was a coincidence that the Nazis chose to eliminate the Minsk Ghetto right before Simchat Torah, just as they chose to exterminate the Jews of Kyiv on Yom Kippur. Those who orchestrated these mass killings sought not only to destroy the Jewish people, but to win a moral victory over the living and the dead. But they failed. Today the Jewish population of the world is larger than it was before the Holocaust.
History knows three waves of the Holocaust. The first stage was die Kristallnacht, the so-called “economic” Holocaust. This year marks 70 years since die Kristallnacht, and we will commemorate those terrible days in Europe on November 9th and 10th. The first wave was followed by a second wave that swept the Minsk ghetto. This was the “hidden” Holocaust, the Holocaust of the Babi Yar killings and similar tragedies. According to Yad Vashem, there are at least five thousand killing sites throughout Europe. The “hidden” Holocaust cleared the way for the Holocaust we all know – the Holocaust of the six death camps in Poland.
The Holocaust of the Minsk ghetto and the Babi Yars claimed the lives of three million Jews. We still have not buried our dead as tradition teaches. That is why the European Jewish Congress has joined forces with the Russian Jewish Congress, the Belarusian community and communities in other countries to initiate a project called Killing Sites in Europe. Commemorating the tragedy of the Jews of Belarus and the Minsk ghetto is an essential part of this project.
I would like to note an important trend I am seeing today. As time goes by, we run into emerging challenges that are comparable to those we faced 65 or 70 years ago. Back then, Europe and the whole world turned a blind eye to what was going on in Germany. People just did not pay attention – or maybe they did not want to pay attention because they were tempted by the benefits of doing business with the flourishing German economy.
Now we are facing the same threats. History is repeating itself, and some are benefiting from cooperation with rogue nations because they are motivated by short-term economic or political gain.
I would like to stress another threat we are all facing, the rising threat of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world. We live in a world of “others.” In a world like this, there is no alternative but to cooperate with “the others.” They are, after all, our neighbors. That is why the statistics we are seeing are so frightening – sixty per cent of Europeans are sick with a disease called “xenophobia.” That is a fact. We have to learn our history lesson in order to succeed in a great endeavor – the pursuit of tolerance and reconciliation.
I want to leave you today with one thought. Every day Jews recite an important prayer – Shmona Esre, which says that the seeds of deliverance will only grow if planted by man. We are the ones who have to save ourselves from the disease!