Yom Hashoah

This is the text of a speech given by Tosia Schneider at Yom Hashoah commemoration ceremonies in Atlanta in 2004.


When I was asked if I would be willing to speak at today’s commemoration of Yom Hashoah there was a good reason for my acceptance. The last words of my dying mother still ring in my ears: "someone must survive to tell the world", she repeated over and over again during that bitter winter of 1942. I feel duty bound to bear witness, yet words fail me to convey the horror. How could such slaughter occur in the heart of Europe?

 We read in Ecclesiastes "ein chadash tachat ha'shemesh" there is nothing new under the sun. But Koheleth was wrong, such bestiality has never been seen under the sun. Six million innocents were murdered, 1 million children. Much has been written, much has been explored about this period in history, and much is yet to come, but Daniel Goldhagen wrote correctly that the armies of killers who descended on our towns and villages were, in his words, "Hitler's willing executioners".


My “shtetl” Horodenka, I am sure, was not unlike the towns and villages, some of you hail from. Jews lived there since the 17th century. Through the centuries different movements swept the region: there were adherents of Shabatai Zwi and followers of Baal Shem Tov, whose son-in-law, I believe, was buried in our cemetery. I remember our Hebrew class being brought to the little structure in the cemetery and asked to bring a “Pitka” a petition, a prayer to place there. No Petition, no prayer could avert the catastrophe that befell our people.

Zionists of every stripe earnestly debated the structure of a country that did not exist. Some made Aliya, others helped in any way they could. No household was without the little blue and white “pushka” of the Jewish National Fund, an ever present reminder of our hopes and longing to someday come to Eretz Israel.

 There were of course those who taught that we must await the Messiah wherever we are.

We waited and waited, but instead of redemption the killers came.

September 1st 1939 war broke out, a war which was to be so devastating to our people. A third of world Jewry will be murdered, great institution of learning, scholars, artists, poets will be lost.

When Poland was divided  between Germany and the Soviet Union, our region was occupied by the Russians. Our people feared deportation to Siberia; little did they know then that exile to the frozen wastelands of Siberia was much preferable to what awaited us all.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, we watched with dismay as the much proclaimed undefeatable Soviet army crumbled initially.

Germans occupied our city in July and the reign of terror began. Ghetto, starvation, random killings. December 4, 1941, half of the Jewish population of our town 2500 men women and children were murdered in a nearby forest of Siemakowce.

This systematic slaughter was repeated thousands of times, many times with full cooperation of the local population. The story of Jedwabne was not unique. Jan Gross tells in his book “Neighbors” how the Polish neighbors drove 800 Jews into a barn and set it afire. In numerous towns and villages our neighbors took the initiative even without the prodding of the Gestapo. In our area Ukrainian thugs drowned in the Dniester river hundreds of defenseless people..

“DEATH IS THE MASTER AUS DEUTSCHLAND” Paul Celan wrote in his heart wrenching poem “Death Fugue”, but the master from Germany had many helpers.

Leaders of the free world knew quite well what was happening, but rescuing the Jews was not their priority. When Jan Karsky, the Polish underground courier gave a detailed account of what he had seen in the Warsaw ghetto and in the concentration camps, he was met with distrust. Even Justice Felix Frankfurter is quoted: “I am unable to believe what you told me”.



The survivors had to live with one of the most painful accusations made by ignorant people “they walked like sheep to slaughter”. No one ever accused the over 500000 Russian prisoners of war who were killed by the Germans of cowardice, or lack of resistance, yet the world expected heroic uprisings from defenseless civilian populations. And resist they did; surviving one more day in the ghetto was resistance, teaching Jewish children under the threat of death, as my mother did, was resistance; refusing to give up her Sabbath candlestick to the Germans, as my grandmother did, was resistance. In the dark of night we helped her bury them in the garden. I still dream that some day I might be able to dig them up and have them brighten my Sabbath table.

There was other resistance as well, in every ghetto, in every camp. Let us remember that the defenders of the Warsaw ghetto fought valiantly, knowing full well that victory or survival were impossible, they fought to die with honor. The starved and isolated members of the Jewish Defense Organization  fought longer than the whole country of Poland with their standing army, air force and world support. They held out longer than the Maginot line in France.

There was resistance in the death camps, two crematoria were blown up in Auschwitz, there was resistance in Sobibor and Treblinka. Our partisans fought in lonely forests and far away fields. They were hounded not only by the SS and Ukrainian police, but they had to face the hostility of the local population. News reached us repeatetly in the labor camp of battles fought. Greatly outnumbered and outgunned, only few survived to tell the tale,. Many lie in unmarked graves in distant forests and lonely fields.

Jews joined resistance fighters in every occupied country in Europe: France, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, they fought in the Jewish Brigade of the British army.


We all remember well the day we were liberated from concentration camps, labor camps, from hiding places, from far away forests. No matter were it occurred, the joy, if one can call it that, was mingled with great sorrow when we began to see and comprehend the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen our people. All of us anxiously waited to go home, to search for any possible survivors, but for many of us the search was futile.

As we returned to our towns and villages, we found that strangers had occupied our homes. We were met with great hostility and threats to our lives. In the town of Kielce 60 Jews were murdered by Poles in 1946. When finally, in the year 2000, Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz apologized to the Jewish people in the name of the Polish nation, he was severely reprimanded by father Henryk Janowski who said “apologizing to the Jews is an insult to the Polish nation”. One more proof that anti-Semitism can thrive even without Jews.

We gathered in abandoned houses, plastered many walls with notes searching for loved ones and friends, most of us wanted to leave that bloody continent forever . Some made it illegally to Palestine, some of us wound up in occupied Germany waiting to emigrate. Unlike our ancestors of long ago who fled from Egyptian slavery with gold and silver, some of us left Germany  with what many Jewish professors, scientists, and scholars had contributed to that country: education. Tools which helped us to establish ourselves in our new homeland.


Some of you who wear the yellow ribbons today found yourselves once again in camps in the occupied zones of Germany. Not concentration camps, to be sure, but camps nevertheless. You did not invade the German towns and villages and plundered and robbed and exacted vengeance;  instead, you built communal life, you established schools and synagogues and built families. Some of our second generation present here today were born in Displaced Persons Camps

You bound your wounds and looked to the future. No armies of psychologists and social workers descended to help you deal with the severe traumas you had experienced, you did the best you could and tried to learn to live a normal life again.

When you finally reached these blessed shores, the kindest among your relatives or friends who met you, told you how lucky you were to have survived and urged you to forget the past and start a new life. To forget the past…as though that was possible or even permissible... You spent your days in struggles to adapt yourself to the new country, to learn a new language, to acquire professions, to start businesses. And many of you succeeded beyond your fondest dreams. Yet in your restless nights, in your dreams or nightmares your never left your “shtetl”, you relived the horrors over and over again.

The holidays were the hardest for you. You filled the empty chairs that your parents grandparents, uncles aunts and cousins should have occupied, with friends, many friends. Perhaps, you thought, your children will not notice and ask why there were no relatives at their Seder table as there were among their American friends. And so, gently, you started to tell little by little about your family and the reason for their absence. Someone once asked a group of second generation young people when they first learned what happened to their families. The answer from all of them was - “I NEVER DID NOT KNOW” . For some, it was the blue numbers on your arm, some of us had an invisible number  branded with a searing iron on our hearts, the number 6 million.


You of the second generation, how was the memory of the Shoah transmitted to you?  As Eva Hoffman writes “In the beginning was the war.” and she continues, in the world she knew, people did not emerge from the womb but from war. The defining event you all have in common belongs to your prehistory, to the experiences of your parents. She refers to you as the “hinge generation” between the experience and memory of the Holocaust.

It is not an easy position in life, few of your contemporaries could understand you. And then came September 11, 2001, and more people began to comprehend what it was like to have your entire world shaken to its very foundations, as was the case with your parents’ world.

Many of you are strongly committed to teach the world about the Shoah, and preserve and honor the memory of our martyred people. For that we are most grateful to you and thank you from the bottom of our hearts.


A few months ago I was interviewed by an Emory student, a wonderful young woman, who wanted to know what are the lessons to be learned from the Shoah, what have we learned that we can pass on to future generations. The young earnestly seek to learn to understand, most importantly they wish for some redeeming quality to this great catastrophe. What can we tell them? That darkness covered the earth, that few cared and fewer did something about it. Yes, there were some brave and righouts people among the nations who risked their lives to help our people, to them we are forever gratefull;  but let us be frank, they were very, very few, hugely outnumbered by the killers and those who stood idly by and those who enriched themselves with the spoils.

Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” are viewed widely and are accepted as history. It is soothing to think that there was also some light in that deep darkness. People around the world embraced the story of Anne Frank. I remember sitting in the theater in New York in silent shock as I heard the closing words of the play. “I still believe that people are good at heart”. I wondered if Anne would have said the same words in Bergen Belsen as she watched helplessly her sister Margo dying of starvation and disease and felt her own life ebb away.

I know I would not have said those words the day I faced a firing squad, the day my 17 years old brother was killed. On that day, the world seemed to have been drained of all goodness.

What can we tell them? That justice was served? Few of the perpetrators ever stood before a court of law and answered for their crimes.

And yet, if history is not be repeated, we must tell our stories, we must fight anti-Semitism in whatever disguise it appears and wherever we find it. We must struggle for victory over forgetfulness, saving the victims from a second death. We must fight against trivialization and exploitation of the Holocaust.

On this sacred ground we must pledge to bear witness, to remember and honor the memory of the millions of our people who perished in the Shoah. 


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